An Introduction to Accreditation: What is it, who does it and what does it mean?

Postsecondary accreditation is historically largely a phenomenon of the United States of America, although similar activities are undertaken in many other countries of the world today, and the word “accreditation” has its greatest usage and understanding within the United States. Although its roots are in the earlier part of the twentieth-century, university accreditation as a whole has seen its greatest growth in the post-war years. In keeping with the increased focus on “accountability” issues since the 1990s, accreditation has become an increasingly discussed issue in postsecondary education today.

What is accreditation? 
Answer #1 – Accreditation in the United States 
Accreditation in the U.S.A. is a voluntary, non-governmental process that is undertaken by private agencies. Some, but not all, of those agencies have applied for and received approval from the U.S. Department of Education or the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which maintains criteria for such approval. Those agencies that are so approved enable their members to qualify for several billion dollars annually of federal student funds. This creates a “gatekeeper” role for such agencies and a direct relationship between them and federal government. The main reason why many institutions in the U.S. seek accreditation is in order to gain access to federal student funds, which are not available to schools that do not hold accreditation.

Most forms of accreditation claim to offer some form of quality assurance to the consumer. However, the effectiveness and integrity of such claims are often difficult to assess independently, and the consumer should be the final arbiter of the merits or necessity of a particular form of accreditation for their situation. There has been strong criticism of claims that regional accreditation assures quality. This criticism has in turn been dismissed by CHEA.

In most cases accreditation agencies act as trade associations, and accreditation confers membership of that trade association according to the standards it sets for entry. Some are explicitly protectionist, and assure the transfer of educational credits between their members while making it more difficult for legitimate non-members to transfer. These policies are designed to give their members a competitive advantage in the market. Formerly, CHEA’s Higher Education Transfer Alliance existed to help those who had graduated from U.S. nationally or regionally-accredited schools to transfer their credits to other nationally and regionally-accredited schools, but currently it appears to have ceased activity. A number of regionally accredited schools also indicate that they will consider transfer credit from unaccredited schools, always on a case-by-case basis and often with a probationary period. CHEA offered an opinion in a November 2000 statement that, “Institutions and accreditors need to assure that transfer decisions are not made solely on the source of accreditation of a sending program or institution.”

The legal right to grant degrees is independent from the issue of accreditation. Although many states in the U.S. require schools to seek accreditation, new schools cannot become accredited instantly. Every school begins as unaccredited, and the accreditation process cannot be begun until several years of operation have passed. Most, but not all, states have a provision where new unaccredited schools can operate under a state license while in the process of seeking accreditation. Some states also have their own procedures whereby a school can be licensed or approved without having to seek accreditation. Hawai’i has its own system of private school licensing. If an institution wishes to operate in multiple states, it must go through multiple approval systems in each state in order to qualify – there is only limited reciprocality between those systems at present. The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, established in 2014, seeks to streamline this process further.

Religious institutions are in theory exempt from the oversight of the United States government, although many states now attempt to regulate religious schools in some way (usually through stipulating the types of degrees they may grant). Although religious schools may opt to seek accreditation, many regard the separation of church and state as a reason either to remain unaccredited or to seek accreditation from a specifically religious agency with no ties to government. A recent decision by the Texas Supreme Court established that the state cannot exercise control over religious institutions whose activities were deemed to be wholly religious, and as a result legislative change there and elsewhere can be anticipated in the coming period.

Institutions that do not hold accreditation may be of equal or greater quality to those which do hold such status, or they may be of lower quality. Reasons for an institution not to seek accreditation include:

  • The school is too small to be accredited, or cannot accommodate the costs of the accreditation process
  • The school is too unusual or progressive to be accredited, offering programmes that are not in keeping with the generally conservative standards of the accreditors
  • The school is philosophically opposed to control by the government, for religious or political reasons
  • The school is geographically ineligible, enrolling foreign students outside the U.S. while not having an accreditable operation within the U.S. In addition, accreditation from recognized U.S. agencies when extended to non-U.S. schools does not make those schools recognized within the U.S., though it is likely to greatly facilitate credit transfer.
  • The school is new and in its early stages of development.
  • The school’s academic standards do not meet the standards of the accreditors.

There are more reasons than these, and in many cases these reasons do not necessarily reflect either positively or negatively on the school concerned.

There are two main types of accreditor:

Programmatic accreditors 
Programmatic accreditors accredit in a particular academic discipline, such as business or engineering, and accredit specific programmes in universities that meet their criteria. Programmatic accreditation and professional licensing are often closely linked, and graduates who intend to practice a particular profession may find that only programmes which hold specific programme accreditation will be eligible for licensing.

Even in licensable professions there are some programmes that are not accredited – after all there are many reasons to study law without intending to become a lawyer. Nor will a particular accreditation status be universally transferable, since different states may have different requirements for the practice of a profession (and different countries certainly do, although there are some international reciprocality agreements in areas such as engineering). This means that the intending student whose aim is to practice in a licensable area must make careful inquiries of their school before enrolling. Even a degree from Harvard may not be useable in all situations.

The standards of programme accreditors are generally conservative. This may mean that some programmes that take a new or experimental approach to the discipline in question are ineligible for accreditation. In addition, U.S. programme accreditors overwhelmingly restrict their accreditation to institutions that hold recognized U.S. regional or national accreditation, or non-U.S. institutions that are controlled by government.

Programmatic accreditors are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. There are few unrecognized programmatic accreditors currently, although there have been some in the area of business and continue to be many in the areas of religion and alternative medicine.

Institutional accreditors 
Institutional accreditors do not accredit particular programmes but instead accredit the institution and its operations as a whole. Although some recognized institutional accreditors will extend accreditation to a few foreign schools, that accreditation is not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or CHEA.

Institutional accreditors fall into two main categories and some further groupings:

1. Regional accreditors 
There are six regional accreditation agencies that accredit schools in the U.S. The regional accreditors are long-established, highly conservative trade associations that are a powerful lobbying force for their members. They were founded by groups of the schools that they accredit. Regional accreditation is based on the concept of peer review, whereby schools which are accredited by a particular agency are assessed by a team comprised of members drawn from other schools which that agency accredits. This means that effectively, schools accredit each other. This process has been referred to, with some justice, as “self-accreditation”. It is also a highly politicized process, with the accreditors often reflecting their own social agendas in their requirements.

The accreditation process focuses on inputs to education, arguing that if these are in place, a minimum level of quality is assured. It is not primarily designed to assess outputs such as student satisfaction and success, nor does the process incorporate the views of stakeholders such as employers or consumers. The findings of accreditation teams are usually confidential and their detail is not disclosed to the public. Once accredited, regionally accredited institutions rarely lose accreditation. Each institution pays substantial fees to obtain and maintain accreditation, meaning that the process is only accessible to schools with substantial financial resources.

The standards of regional accreditors vary quite widely, so that what is accreditable in one region is not so in others and there is no general agreement on certain issues. When surveyed in 2007, only one regional accreditor (the North Central Association) had shown itself willing to accredit schools which offer programmes solely via distance learning. This leads to the phenomenon of region-shopping, where at least one school in recent years has changed state in order to come under the jurisdiction of the NCA. Similar divisions between the regional accreditors exist with regard to the acceptance of APEL credit.

Full regional accreditation visits to institutions take place, on average, every ten years, with an intermediate visit at the five year interval.

2. Recognized national accreditors 
Recognized national accreditors are required to meet the same standards as regional accreditors for federal recognition in the U.S. Of these, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) accredits institutions offering distance education up to the master’s and professional doctorate (not Ph.D.) level. Their schools offer a professionally focused education. Like the regional accreditors, national accreditors’ processes are primarily based on peer review and on inputs, with detailed findings usually confidential and not disclosed to the public.

U.S. accreditors unrecognized by government
There are several national and international accreditors in the U.S. which have either applied unsuccessfully for recognition by governmental authorities or have not submitted such an application, usually citing objection to government control of education. The quality and standards of these agencies must therefore be determined by the consumer. In some cases they may operate meaningful standards of quality, while in others they are simply trade associations. This category formerly included the National Association for Private Non-Traditional Schools and Colleges, which applied on several occasions for recognition by the Department of Education without success. Some accreditors in the area of alternative medicine cannot obtain recognition because some of the disciplines they accredit are not themselves accepted by the traditional academic community.

Religious accreditors 
TRACS and the ABHE are the only specifically Christian institutional accreditors to be governmentally recognized. There are also recognized religious programmatic accreditors. Other accreditors opt not to be recognized by the government because of their belief in the separation of church and state, or in some cases because their standards of operation do not meet those set for recognition. Most religious accreditors of necessity only accredit religiously-based programmes and schools.

Changes in institutional accreditation on the way? 
Changes in the institutional accreditation system have been debated by legislators for many years. Some in particular want to see the accreditation function impose federally-determined standards of quality and effectively become the quality assurance arm of the U.S. Department of Education. This has been mooted in the wake of concerns that institutional accreditors have failed to ensure quality in their members.

Answer #2 – Equivalents to accreditation outside the United States
Accreditation as a system is largely a United States phenomenon. Outside the U.S.A., countries entrust governments and the legislature with determining the basis on which postsecondary educational institutions can exist and operate. The term “accreditation” is not in universal use around the world to describe these systems, and when it is used, it does not necessarily mean the same as its meaning in the U.S.A. In addition, legitimate private, non-governmental accreditation agencies exist, sometimes tied to professional licensing. The position is complex and individual to each country.

Because the term “accreditation” ultimately signifies recognition, any organization can potentially accredit another. Ultimately, this is what accreditation is – a recognition by a specific organization, group, or government. The merits of that recognition will depend on a number of factors, not least the nature of the bodies in question.

In some countries the term “university” and the power to award degrees is restricted by law and can only be used by state-controlled institutions. This does not necessarily prevent higher education from being offered outside these restrictions, such as in France, where private institutions may award certificats with titles such as the M.B.A. and use the title of “ecole” but are still subject to state approval of their curriculums. In other countries, such as Belgium, there is a constitutional right to private education, and private universities can exist freely. Denmark also operates a relatively free market in postsecondary education. Where there is no restriction in place, the operations of universities will usually be governed by some system of common law or customary law, depending on the jurisdiction and its legislative framework. Statutory exemptions exist for some types of institution in some countries, and are not always widely understood.

The fact of an institution being associated with the government does not assure its quality or indeed its acceptability outside (and sometimes inside) that country. Such quality and acceptability must instead be determined by market forces in individual situations.

An option for some institutions is a validation agreement between their institution and a governmentally-recognized university. In this arrangement, the governmentally-recognized university exercises oversight over the standards of its partner, and usually study can lead to a degree conferred by the governmentally-recognized university itself. Some programmes are offered by two or more universities working in collaboration as a consortium or partnership. These programmes may be transnational where the consortium members are based in different countries.

UNESCO itself does not accredit, license or recognize universities. However, the International Association of Universities in association with UNESCO publishes a reasonably full list of public sector and government-controlled private universities of the world and useful profiles of country education systems based on the information supplied by particular governments. Nevertheless, the IAU does not include self-regulating universities in its list, despite the fact that these may be operating legally, nor does it include transnational institutions or many legally-operating university-level institutions that do not carry the university title, such as military academies and some business schools that use the designation “school” or “college” in their names.

The emergence of cross-border and transnational education providers, particularly those that are based wholly online, poses significant problems for accreditation systems. There are a few international accreditors at present and this number is likely to grow; in doing so it is also likely to weaken the bonds between accreditation and government control.

What is accreditation, and what is it not? 
An official document from the former State of California Council on Postsecondary and Vocational Education (CPPVE) states the following,

“Accreditation Is…

A voluntary, non-governmental activity that occurs approximately every five to ten years. The value and effectiveness of accreditation lies in the institutions’ commitment to continuous self-study and evaluation.

A process in which educational institutions evaluate themselves objectively, and then subject their evaluations to an accrediting body for a review and critique of educational quality.

A peer evaluation. The evaluation teams consist of professional educators and/or school administrators, specialists selected according to the nature of the institution or program, and sometimes others representing specific public interests.”

“Accreditation Is Not…

A replacement for governmental regulation, or a license from the government to do business. Public institutions receive their approval to operate through the state Constitution and legislative action. Although many states exempt accredited institutions from state regulation, accreditation is a voluntary, private-sector evaluation. Accrediting bodies cannot force institutions to comply with state and federal laws, and do not view their role as regulatory.

A guarantee of consumer protection. The evaluation criteria of accrediting bodies tend to be general and non-uniform, because of the great diversity of postsecondary educational institutions and accrediting bodies in the United States.

A tool to be used in certifying professional practitioners. Because accreditation is granted by a private, non-governmental body, requiring candidates for professional licensure to obtain education from an accredited institution as a prerequisite for licensure may be denial of the candidates’ constitutional rights.”

What does all this mean for your situation? 
The decision as to the type of institution you choose to attend is highly personal and will be governed by multiple factors. Some of these are:

  • Intended use of the degree, both in the immediate future and in the longer term – some uses, such as government employment, will usually demand particular accreditation while private business is more open to private universities; some U.S. states restrict or make illegal the use of degrees without particular accreditation;
  • Cost of programmes – regionally accredited institutions usually cost much more than others, but do not necessarily offer better value for money;
  • Institutional integrity – look behind the accreditation to see what the true values of the institution are. Is the accreditation all it has going for it? What does the accreditation actually mean?
  • Personal beliefs and educational theories – are the institution and its programmes in tune with your own core values and the way you want to learn? If not, look around and you will probably find an institution that is compatible.

If you require a degree from an institution that holds specific governmental accreditation, a degree from a private, self-regulating university may not meet your needs, and you may need to look elsewhere to continue your education. Equally, for many employers and candidates, issues of accreditation by this or that external authority, or by government, may be of no concern. Why should you spend extra time and money earning a degree with governmental approval or accreditation if you don’t actually need one? A degree from a private institution may serve your purposes just as well, and may also offer both academic and financial advantages over public sector alternatives.

Your employer may well say to you that earning any master’s degree, whatever the accredited status of the school, will secure you a promotion or a salary raise. There are certainly employers who do this. If this is your situation, or if you are self-employed, retired or studying for personal interest, you can legitimately widen your choices to consider a degree from a self-regulating university.

Once you decide that a degree from a self-regulating university is an option, you are likely to be interested in issues such as the cost of the programme (many private universities are less expensive than many government-run alternatives), the philosophy of education, the flexibility of the programme (including the option of totally non-resident study, almost unique to private institutions at the doctoral level), and the institution’s openness about the nature of the quality standards that are met and external approvals that are held. Most people and employers in this situation are concerned with whether the experience of earning a degree will make the person a better employee and their company more efficient.