Accreditation: The Basics

Written by: Staff Writer

What is Accreditation?

Accreditation is the evaluation of a college, university, or program using a rigorous and thorough review process. Schools voluntarily submit to accreditation reviews to demonstrate their academic standards. Accreditation functions at different levels, with regional and national accreditation for schools and programmatic accreditation for programs.

This page explains why accreditation matters when choosing a school. After learning more about accreditation, prospective students can make an informed decision about applying to a college or university.

Who Accredits Universities?

Independent, nonprofit accrediting agencies grant accreditation to universities. Many accrediting agencies grew out of consortiums between schools created to maintain academic standards. Today, these accrediting agencies operate independently of schools. They review colleges, universities, and degree-granting programs to ensure high standards.

Accrediting agencies must also meet best practice standards to operate in the U.S. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) oversee accrediting agencies. The CHEA and ED set the standards that accreditation agencies must meet to accredit schools. They also oversee the accreditation process to ensure accrediting agencies operate properly. These monitoring organizations also provide databases of accredited universities.

Why Accreditation Is Important

Prospective students often ask why accreditation is important when choosing a school. Accreditation is a measure of academic quality. Only schools that maintain high standards for student learning outcomes can earn and maintain accreditation. As a result, accreditation signals to prospective students and future employers that a degree meets academic standards.

Accreditation and Financial Aid

A university's accreditation status affects whether or not students can qualify for federal financial aid. Students can only receive federal loans if they are enrolled at an accredited institution. Non-accredited institutions do not meet federal standards for receiving financial aid.

In addition, many corporate tuition assistance programs require accreditation, with some employers mandating that recipients must attend a school with regional accreditation. Other loans and scholarships may also maintain accreditation requirements.

Accreditation and Transfer Credits

When students with prior college credit apply to another college, they can receive credit toward their degree. Some schools only accept transfer credits earned at a regionally accredited institution. In addition, programs may restrict transfer credits to those earned through a programmatically accredited program.

Checking Accreditation

Checking accreditation can prove difficult. Some schools post out-of-date information on their websites or list accreditation from a non-approved accrediting agency. As a result, prospective students must carefully research a school's accreditation and the accreditation held by specific programs within that school.

Prospective students can start by double-checking a school's accreditation status with the appropriate accrediting agency or with the ED or CHEA. Students can also check whether the commission accrediting the school holds approval from the ED, which maintains a registry of approved agencies.

In addition to verifying accreditation, prospective students should watch out for red flags. If the school does not provide information on its accreditation status and provides no easy way to contact advisors for student assistance, it may not meet high academic standards. In addition, programs that seem too good to be true might fall short of accreditation requirements.

Types Of Accreditation

Schools may hold several different types of accreditation. For example, institutional accreditation, which applies to the whole school, may come from a regional or national accrediting agency. Within a school, programs may also hold programmatic or specialized accreditation.

Institutional – National

What is national accreditation? National accreditation recognizes schools that meet a national accrediting agency's standards. In general, vocational colleges, technical colleges, and religious schools hold national accreditation. Several specialized agencies, including the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges and the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training, grant national accreditation.

Like regional accrediting agencies, national accrediting agencies can apply to the ED for recognition as an approved accrediting agency. However, in addition to approved agencies, some accrediting agencies grant national accreditation without ED approval. For example, The Association for Biblical Higher Education grants national accreditation without meeting ED standards.

Institutional – Regional

What is regional accreditation? Regional accreditation remains the highest standard for liberal arts and research institutions. Across the country, six regional accrediting agencies, which cover different regions, grant accreditation to two-year and four-year colleges and universities. In addition, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges accredits two-year programs in Western states and territories.

These seven accrediting agencies grant accreditation to 3,000 primarily nonprofit public and private colleges and universities in the United States. Together, they make up the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, an organization dedicated to maintaining consistent and high standards in regional accreditation.

List of Accrediting Agencies
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior College California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (and some schools in Asia)
Higher Learning Commission Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming
Middle States Commission on Higher Education New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
New England Commission of Higher Education Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and some international institutions
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington state
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission
on Colleges
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia
WASC Senior College and University Commission California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands (in addition to certain schools in Asia)

Regional vs. National Accreditation

Regional and national accreditation both measure the strengths of an entire college or university. However, the two types of institutional accreditation bring different pros and cons. Regional accreditation meets the requirements for more professional licenses, and credits earned at a regionally accredited institution are more likely to transfer. However, regionally accredited schools may cost more or require more credits to earn a degree.

Nationally accredited institutions often cost less than regionally accredited institutions. They may also require fewer general education requirements. However, credits earned at a nationally accredited institution may not transfer to other schools, especially regionally accredited schools. In addition, some professional licensing standards and graduate schools require a regionally accredited degree.

Nonprofit liberal arts and research institutions generally hold regional accreditation, while for-profit private institutions generally hold national accreditation.

Specialized or Programmatic

In addition to institutional accreditation, programs within a college or university may hold accreditation from a specialized or programmatic accrediting agency. In many cases, programmatic accreditation applies to fields that require a license or certificate to practice. For example, nursing, teaching, and counseling programs generally hold programmatic accreditation.

For example, the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education both grant programmatic accreditation to nursing programs. These accrediting agencies set specific standards for nursing education that programs must meet to earn accreditation. During the review process, a nursing accrediting agency reviews a program's curriculum to make sure it meets the best standards for educating nurses.

Nurses who graduate from an accredited program meet the requirements for a state-issued nursing license. Many graduate programs in nursing require an undergraduate degree from an accredited nursing program as part of admission requirements.

Other disciplines that hold programmatic accreditation include business, social work, physical therapy, and medicine. For example, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs both grant accreditation to business programs. Some employers may prefer to hire graduates from an accredited program.

Most arts and sciences majors, such as those studying history, political science, and biology, do not receive specialized accreditation. However, these programs still undergo review as part of the institutional accreditation process.

In addition to programmatic accrediting agencies that specialize in a certain field, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) sets standards for distance learning institutions. Founded in 1926 to promote quality in correspondence education programs, the DEAC reviews online schools for their academic quality, curriculum requirements, academic support services, and financial health. The DEAC holds approval from the CHEA and ED to accredit distance learning programs.

Which Accreditation is Best?

The best type of accreditation depends on each student's goals. In general, regional accreditation represents the gold standard for institutional accreditation. However, students seeking a vocational program may prefer national accreditation. In addition, programmatic accreditation can be important when qualifying for professional licenses or certifications.

How Does Accreditation Work?

Accreditation requires several complicated steps and a multi-year process. The accreditation process starts with a lengthy application and candidacy stage. The application stage can last for 1-3 years before an institution becomes a candidate for accreditation. After completing the application process, institutions remain candidates for up to five years while the accrediting agency assesses them.

After completing the candidacy phase, institutions earn accreditation. However, accredited institutions must regularly undergo reviews to maintain their status. Accredited institutions submit an annual institutional report to the accrediting agency, regularly complete self-study reports, and report any changes.

Online schools complete a slightly different process to earn accreditation. Keep in mind that online programs offered by brick-and-mortar schools generally hold regional regional or national accreditation rather than specialized online accreditation.

Eligibility Requirements

Schools and programs must meet eligibility requirements before beginning the accreditation process. These requirements vary depending on the accrediting agency, but many set requirements related to transparency, financial health, and the institution's mission.

Regional accrediting agencies often set high eligibility requirements for schools interested in pursuing accreditation. These agencies generally only grant accreditation to institutions that primarily exist to provide higher education, share characteristics with other higher education institutions, and meet every item on the agency's list of eligibility requirements.

Institutions must offer programs that build on the knowledge and skills students gain in high school. Accrediting agencies also look for programs that rely on competent experts when designing the curriculum.

Most accrediting agencies require at least one year of existence before reviewing an institution. Others also require at least one graduating class from the principal educational program. Schools must hold authorization to award degrees granted by a governmental authority or agency in their area.

Eligibility requirements also cover a school's commitment to academic freedom, the quality of educational programs, and transparency about the admissions process and student learning outcomes. Institutions must also demonstrate financial stability and financial accountability.

Specialized accrediting agencies offer more focused requirements. For example, the DEAC's eligibility requirements state that an institution must primarily offer distance education programs to qualify. In addition, institutions must be licensed or authorized to grant degrees and demonstrate at least two consecutive years of enrolling students in its current programs. Like regional accrediting agencies, the DEAC requires evidence of an institution's financial health.

Self-Evaluation

Candidates must complete a self-evaluation before the accrediting agency conducts its own evaluation. The comprehensive self-analysis reviews the institution according to standards set by the accrediting agency. Creating a self-evaluation may take a year or longer, as it requires an in-depth analysis of the entire institution's achievements, processes, and resources.

During this self-evaluation, a school analyzes its institutional resources and its effectiveness in meeting its mission and provides evidence of student achievement. This process requires data showing that students meet the standards for the degrees granted by the institution. Institutions provide evidence of their educational achievements, structures, and processes in the report.

This self-evaluation also provides an overview of the institution's planning and improvement process, demonstrating a solid foundation for growth. Accrediting agencies use the self-evaluation to measure the institution's organization, staffing, and potential for earning accreditation. Many accrediting agencies offer accreditation workshops that introduce institutions to the process and requirements for self-evaluation and accreditation.

Online programs also complete a self-evaluation as part of the DEAC's accreditation process. The DEAC requires a self-evaluation report that details the institution's mission, effectiveness, strategic planning, and program outcomes. Applicants must also provide information on student achievement, education support services, and financial disclosures.

Application and Readiness Assessment

In addition to the self-evaluation, accreditation candidates submit a detailed application to the accrediting agency. The application provides additional evidence that the institution meets the accrediting agency's eligibility requirements. Most agencies require written responses to each eligibility requirement, plans for institutional development, and detailed data on the institution as part of the application.

Institutions submit a current catalog of their programs, graduation requirements, and courses. They also provide a current budget and financial statement, including institutional audits, for the accrediting agency to review.

During the application process, institutions must also pay a fee to cover the cost of reviewing the institution. The fee may range from $1,500-$10,000, depending on the accrediting agency.

The application process for online schools is similar. The DEAC requires an application detailing financial information, physical locations, information on the ownership structure, and detailed information on the institution's educational offerings. Online schools also submit their self-evaluation during the application process.

The DEAC also requires a readiness assessment conducted by an independent evaluator during the application process. This assessment determines whether the school's SER meets standards and includes a recommendation on whether to complete an onsite committee review.

After receiving an application, the accrediting agency reviews the information and creates an analysis. The agency's commission meets to discuss the application with a representative from the institution. If the commission finds that the institution meets the conditions to apply for accreditation, the school can conduct a self-evaluation and move into the candidacy phase.

Curriculum Review and Third-Party Assessment

The curriculum review and third-party assessment step applies only to online schools. The assessment, conducted by an independent evaluator appointed by the DEAC, provides feedback to the institution on its readiness for accreditation. The assessment also determines whether the school's self-evaluation meets the requirements for an onsite evaluation.

The DEAC uses an approved quality curriculum process to measure a program's curriculum standards. During the process, external curriculum experts assess a program's learning materials and objectives using a peer review process. These steps ensure an online school meets readiness requirements before an onsite evaluation.

Onsite Evaluation

Accrediting agencies conduct onsite evaluations to assess accreditation candidates. The peer evaluation process relies on experts in different specialities. The DEAC, for example, sends a chair, an educational standards evaluator, and a business standards evaluator during onsite evaluations. The committee may also include subject specialist evaluators.

When conducting an onsite evaluation, the evaluators use standards and forms created by the accrediting agency. These tools, along with the school's self-evaluation, help evaluators conduct their onsite review. Evaluators prepare for an onsite visit by reading the self-evaluation, reviewing specialist reports, and looking at student surveys. They verify material submitted by the school and interview staff and faculty during the review.

Onsite evaluations represent the final stage of the accreditation process. As a result, they are scheduled visits meant to confirm information provided to the accrediting agency. The onsite evaluation typically requires 1-3 days.

After completing the evaluation, the evaluators create a report detailing their visit, which the accrediting body uses when determining whether to grant accreditation. In particular, the accrediting agency determines whether the organization demonstrates the organization necessary to offer educational programs and demonstrates the potential to meet institutional stability requirements. Schools that do not meet the standards must wait a set amount of time before submitting another application.

Publication and Maintaining Accreditation

After reviewing the self-evaluation and application, conducting third-party assessments, and completing an onsite evaluation, the accrediting agency announces their decision. Online schools can generally complete the DEAC accreditation process in two years. Regional accreditation often takes longer.

Schools that pass the accreditation process from a regional accrediting agency receive initial/pre-accreditation status, which functions as provisional accreditation. Institutions must then submit a report every two years, including another comprehensive self-evaluation and a second onsite visit. The initial accreditation process can take 10 years before schools become fully accredited members.

Periodically, accredited institutions undergo maintenance reviews to ensure they continue to meet the accrediting agency's standards. During the maintenance review, institutions conduct a self-evaluation and host an onsite evaluation committee. Regional accrediting agencies generally conduct periodic reviews every 7-10 years.

Schools that do not receive accreditation can begin the process again. Many accrediting agencies require a waiting period of several years before submitting another application. Accredited schools can also lose their accreditation status if they fail to meet the agency's standards. For example, poor financial management can cause an accreditation agency to withdraw accreditation.

Colleges and universities post their accreditation status on their websites. CHEA and ED also maintain databases listing accredited institutions. Prospective students can learn more about an institution's accreditation status and periodic reviews by visiting the accrediting agency's website.

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