An In-Depth Guide to Accreditation in Higher Education

College accreditation is a process by which schools are certified by an outside agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) or the Western Association of Schools & Colleges (WASC), to provide quality academic services and student support. Accredited schools can guarantee adequate library resources, qualified faculty, solid student achievement rates and financial aid access, as well as the ability to receive a license to work in fields that require licensure for practitioners.

Basics of Accreditation

Accreditation exists to ensure that students get the most out of their educational opportunities and so tax money only goes to schools that have appropriate educational infrastructure. Schools must apply for accreditation as well as go through a rigorous review process, which ensures that schools actually have the resources they claim before they can become accredited universities. When evaluation schools, accreditation agencies apply different but consistent standards to institutions seeking accreditation.

Why does accreditation exist?+

Accreditation exists as a check on universities, ensuring that students study at legitimate institutions. A university that has been assessed by an accrediting body can provide proof that it meets the exacting standards for higher education in the modern day. As the process is expensive, it also limits the extent to which disreputable educational institutions can successfully function as “diploma mills,” which provide degrees with little or no educational value. As employers and other education institutions are unlikely to take an unaccredited degree seriously, accreditation makes operating a diploma mill a much more difficult proposition.Accreditation is also a way to ensure that a school deserves to receive certain types of funding. Most federal student aid, such as the Pell Grant and the Post-9/11 GI Bill, is only available to students at accredited universities. Accreditation ensures that these tax dollars are spent on institutions that can offer their students a solid education to prepare them for the future.Finally, accreditation is a way of showing prospective employers and graduate schools that a school provides a quality education. Schools that have met accreditation standards can guarantee at least a certain minimum quality of education, so accreditation serves as a stamp of quality that employers can recognize at a glance. For more information on why accreditation matters, you can check out this Maryland Higher Education Commission website.

How do schools become accredited? How do accreditation agencies evaluate schools? +

The first step toward accreditation is to apply to an accrediting agency. Schools may apply to regional accrediting agencies if they are looking for general accreditation, or to programmatic accrediting agencies like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) that focus on individual subjects or programs if they are seeking accreditation in that field. This application often involves paying a large fee, which pays for the accrediting agency survey team and other application processing costs. Some applications also require the submission of a self-study performed by the university. After this step, the accrediting agency sends a group of assessors to the university to examine the program. These assessors review the university site itself, to make sure that all of the claims made in the application and self-study are true. After taking notes and documenting the experience at the university, the assessors return to the accrediting agency and report their findings. The accrediting agency considers several factors as part of their determination. The faculty and support personnel of the institution are considered, as a school needs qualified faculty and solid support services to help students succeed. Student success is also considered as a key factor, as a school must have a proven record of excellence. Finally, the agency considers the student resources made available. A school needs excellent library and laboratory facilities, especially for certain fields, like chemistry, in which a well-equipped lab is essential for student learning. This Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) site has more information on accreditation standards.

Do all accreditation agencies use the same standards to evaluate schools? Can schools lose their accreditation?+

As accrediting bodies operate in several different regions and serve different purposes, they can have different standards. Programmatic accrediting organizations like ABET must have different standards than regional accrediting bodies for this accreditation to provide meaningful value to students. A school can have a strong set of general support structures and faculty, but not provide the specialized resources necessary for engineering students. As a result, not all accrediting agencies look at the same criteria. Accrediting bodies start with a focus on similar criteria, however, as there are certain standards that must be met by any institution of higher education. Elements like class size, student access to faculty, library resources and support services are almost always relevant to an accrediting body. Other standards can vary, but these are almost always found in a list of accreditation requirements. Finally, accreditation does not last forever. Schools are usually required to reapply for accreditation or undergo an accreditation review every few years after receiving accreditation to make sure they continue to meet all necessary standards. If the school has become deficient, its accreditation can be revoked.For more information on accreditation and reaccreditation, you can consult this SACS standards site.

Who oversees Higher Education Accreditation?

Accrediting bodies are overseen by CHEA, an organization that confirms accrediting bodies have the resources necessary to assess programs for their accreditation. The Department of Education also plays a role in the certification of these accrediting agencies. These organizations ensure that accreditation remains meaningful by providing assurances that these accrediting bodies can perform the necessary assessments.

What is the relationship between an institution, the accrediting body, and recognizing bodies?+

The relationship between an institution and an accrediting body is fairly straightforward. An institution is accredited by that accrediting body when it proves that it meets the minimum standards for accreditation. It is then often required to submit additional materials to the accrediting body periodically, or allow another assessment, to make sure that it still meets these standards later on. These accrediting bodies, meanwhile, are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) or CHEA. These organizations exist to improve the academic quality of colleges and ensure that federal funds go to the appropriate places. These organizations also work with one another to ensure that standards remain high and consistent with the needs of modern students. Recognizing bodies also help accrediting bodies by encouraging them to perform self-assessments. They require staff site visits and reports from accrediting bodies, and conduct periodic accrediting body reviews to maintain recognition. In many ways, the relationship between recognizing bodies and accrediting bodies parallels that of institutions and accrediting bodies. For more information on the relationships between these organizations, you can consult this document from the CHEA website.

What criteria does the Department of Education use to certify accreditation agencies?+

Accrediting agencies have to submit an application for recognition to the U.S. Department of Education as the first step toward certification. The most important element of this application is the requested scope of recognition, which represents the range of programs that the organization would like to accredit. Organizations currently applying for new accreditation typically apply to accredit a specific type of program, such as psychology or statistics, and only provide accreditation within that field. Accrediting bodies have to make their accrediting standards available to the USDE when they apply for accreditation. The USDE looks at these standards closely, ensuring that they are consistent with the needs of general accreditation and the needs of, in the case of programmatic accreditation agencies, the field in question. The accrediting bodies must also supply lists of institutions that they have accredited, which helps to confirm that the accreditation offered is provided to strong institutions. Finally, the accrediting agencies must be assessed directly by USDE staff members. USDE staff members often accompany survey teams from the accrediting agency when they assess universities and colleges, ensuring that their practices in the field are solid. USDE staff members also look into the administrative offices and operations of the accrediting agencies. The U.S. Department of Education makes a list of recognized accrediting agencies available on its website.

What criteria does the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) use to certify accreditation agencies?+

To become eligible for CHEA recognition, the accrediting body must first submit an eligibility application, including the requested scope of its accreditation. It must also not have submitted and withdrawn an eligibility application in the past year to have the application considered. CHEA then notifies an agency whether it believes the organization is eligible for accreditation within the scope of accreditation it has applied for. Observers from CHEA then attend a decision-making meeting held by the applying agency, attempting to discern just how the group makes its decisions. This allows CHEA to determine whether the standards applied by the group in practice are as rigorous as claimed in their eligibility application and their public documents. The agency must also conduct a self-evaluation. Later on in the process, representatives from the accrediting body must attend a meeting to discuss accreditation of the organization. Third parties are also welcome to attend if they have information pertinent to this process. This way, agencies have the opportunity to ensure that their voices are heard during the process, and any issues with the observation report can be examined. After all steps are complete, the accreditation decision is made publicly available on the CHEA website. For a comprehensive breakdown of recognition standards, you can review this CHEA document.

Information About Accreditation Agencies

There are several different types of accreditation, including those awarded to entire institutions and those awarded to specific programs or departments at a university. Institutional accreditation is a general mark of institutional quality, whereas programmatic institution shows that a college meets standards for excellence in a specific field.

What are the different types of accreditation?+

Institutional – Institutional accreditation is any accreditation afforded to a whole college or university. Institutional accreditors look for general support services, faculty qualifications and student outcomes as part of their assessments of programs. This sort of accreditation is often necessary for an institution to be eligible for certain types of federal funding, such as the Pell Grant or the GI Bill.

Regional – Regional accreditation is provided by one of six major accrediting organizations, each of which focuses on a narrow geographic region. This ensures that schools in the same general area are compared fairly to one another, and that these organizations are not overwhelmed by more requests than they can handle.

National – National accrediting agencies for institutions usually specialize in certain forms of learning, such as career training or distance education. Some also focus on the educational needs of specific faiths. Due to the narrower focus of these accrediting bodies, it is more effective for these to operate at a national level.

Career / Distance Learning – These accrediting bodies focus on schools that offer specific forms of learning, such as trade schools, and schools that offer their classes online or by correspondence. Most accredited online colleges have this form of accreditation.

Faith BasedThese accrediting agencies focus on the needs of specific religious communities, such as Christian ministry colleges or Jewish rabbinical schools.

Programmatic – Programmatic accrediting agencies promote improvements in the learning experience in specific fields, like business, engineering, medical science or applied sociology. These organizations ensure that a school has appropriate resources and faculty to train students in these fields. For a list of programmatic accrediting agencies and the fields they cover, you can review the CHEA web page.

What is the difference between Region and National Accreditation?+

Regional accreditation is carried out by organizations that focus on a specific area of the country, such as the Pacific Northwest or New England. These accrediting agencies limit their scope by geography to avoid being overwhelmed by requests from colleges and universities from all around the country, and to keep standards comparable within certain geographic regions. Regional accreditation is typically provided to brick-and-mortar colleges, though some of these agencies are beginning to branch out into online education in certain fields. National accreditation for institutions is usually done with a focus on some other criteria, such as career-specific education or distance learning. These organizations are usually the ones that accredit online schools, as the geographic region an online school occupies is not necessarily relevant to its performance as an institution of higher learning. Other national accrediting organizations focus on ministry and other faith-based professional fields, accrediting colleges that provide students with the skills necessary to pursue professions like pastors, rabbis and ministers. This University of Maryland web page has more information and specific examples regarding the difference between these types of accreditation.

Not all organizations that offer degrees are legitimate schools. Accreditation is there to help you find the schools that provide the best education in their field. Schools that are not accredited cannot receive certain federal funds and are likely to be viewed as less reputable or rigorous by employers. In the long run, this can make it more difficult for students to finance their degree programs or acquire jobs in their field. By checking for accreditation and making sure the accrediting body is a legitimate one, you can ensure that you receive a solid education and have your academic work treated with respect.

Non-Accredited Schools

The rise in popularity of online education has encouraged a proliferation of non-accredited institutions handing out fake degrees. In contrast with other countries, the United States does not legally restrict the use of the terms “college” and “university,” so anyone can create a diploma mill and start handing out degrees for cash.

What are “diploma mills”?+

Diploma mills, rather than seeking to provide students with high quality education, are organizations that afford degrees to students who attend minimal or no classes. Sometimes, all that is necessary to receive a degree from a diploma mill is to pay the tuition the organization requires. Though these schools are not accredited by recognized accrediting bodies, they will sometimes set up a false accrediting body or claim to be accredited by an organization from which they have received no accreditation. Diploma mills sometimes offer large amounts of credit to students based on life experience or previous portfolio assessments, luring students with the promise of a degree that requires little additional work. These schools sometimes go quite far to create the illusion of academic work. Some even require students to submit homework and buy textbooks, but an actual faculty member rarely, if ever, examines the work done by students at these schools. These practices are designed to trick you into believing you are receiving an honest and useful education without ever engaging with a professor who is accomplished in the field.This Arkansas Department of Higher Education page outlines some of the measures that states are taking to stop these fraudulent institutions from operating.

What happens to students who attend unaccredited schools? How can students avoid these schools?+

Students who attend unaccredited schools are at a disadvantage after graduation. Despite having spent a great deal of money to earn their degrees, these students find themselves less likely to find jobs in the field they believe they have studied. Employers often take steps to verify the accreditation and quality of unfamiliar schools, as do graduate schools. As a result, students who attend unaccredited schools often have their academic credentials viewed with suspicion and doubt. In some cases, these students must then go back and pay for their education all over again at a more reputable institution. The credits earned at a school without accreditation also do not typically transfer to other schools. If you are worried that a school you are considering lacks accreditation or that the accreditation it has is not recognized by a major recognizing body, you should carefully examine both the school and, if applicable, the accrediting body. This Maine Department of Education site provides some information on what to look for if you suspect a school of being a diploma mill or having accreditation from an accreditation mill. If you are concerned that a school lacks accreditation, you can also check if it appears on a state-published list of non-accredited schools like this one.