Higher education accreditation in the United States
Higher education accreditation in the United States is a peer review process coordinated by accreditation commissions and member institutions. It was first undertaken in the late 19th century by cooperating educational institutions.
The federal government began to play a limited role in higher education accreditation in 1952 with reauthorization of the GI Bill for Korean War veterans. The original GI Bill legislation had stimulated establishment of new colleges and universities to accommodate the influx of new students; but some of these new institutions were of dubious quality. The 1952 legislation designated the existing peer review process as the basis for measuring institutional quality; GI Bill eligibility was limited to students enrolled at accredited institutions included on a list of federally recognized accredited institutions published by the U.S. Commissioner of Education.
The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) (a non-governmental organization) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education and provide guidelines as well as resources and relevant data regarding these accreditors. Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor CHEA accredit individual institutions.
With the creation of the U.S. Department of Education and under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, the U.S. Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary has determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit. There are regional and national accrediting agencies, both of which are accountable to the Department of Education. Regional bodies have more oversight and accredit institutions in a particular region of the country. National bodies have less oversight in their policy and commonly accredit institutions across the country, and sometimes beyond it. Within American higher education, the former are considered more reputable.
- 1 Regional accreditation
- 2 National accreditors
- 3 Specialized and professional accreditors
- 4 Religious accreditors
- 5 Use of .edu top-level Internet domain
- 6 Assessments of accreditation
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
Historically, most educational accreditation activity in the United States has been overseen by a set of six regional accrediting agencies that were established in the late 19th and early 20th century to foster better articulation between secondary schools and higher education institutions, particularly to help colleges and universities evaluate prospective students. These regional accreditation agencies are membership organizations of educational institutions in their respective geographic regions. Initially the main focus of the organizations was on accreditation of secondary schools and establishment of uniform college entrance requirements. Accreditation of colleges and universities followed later.
Regional accreditation of higher education applies to entire institutions, rather than specific programs within an institution. The higher education institutions holding regional accreditation are predominantly academically oriented, non-profit institutions.
There are 52 recognized national accrediting bodies. National accreditors get their name from their common policy of accrediting schools nationwide or even worldwide. Requirements for accreditation vary with each national accreditor according to their specialty. In general terms, the national accreditors accredit post-secondary programs that are vocational, technical and career in nature. Some of these programs offer degrees and some only certificates.
Five of these bodies are listed by the Department of Education as general in nature and national in scope. These are:
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- United States Distance Learning Division (USDLA)
National accreditation compared to regional accreditation
Regionally accredited schools are predominantly academically oriented, non-profit institutions. Nationally accredited schools are predominantly for-profit and offer vocational, career or technical programs. Within the American higher education system, critics note that national accrediting bodies (though not necessarily all nationally accredited schools) have much lower standards than regional bodies, and consider them disreputable for this reason.
Generally, regionally accredited colleges have general policies against accepting any credits from nationally accredited schools, others are reluctant to because regional schools feel that national schools' academic standards are lower than their own or they are unfamiliar with the particular school. It is important to note that both types of accreditation are legitimate and recognized by the Department of Education. However, there have been lawsuits regarding nationally accredited schools who led prospective students to believe that they would have no problem transferring their credits to regionally accredited schools.
Specialized and professional accreditors
Specialized and professional accreditors are recognized as reputable by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Best practices are shared and developed through affiliation with the Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors. The more visible specialized and professional accreditors include:
- Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology – for applied science, computing, engineering, and technology programs
- American Bar Association – for law schools. Graduation from an ABA-accredited law school is a prerequisite to sitting for the bar exam in most states, a notable exception being California.
- American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation – for dentistry schools
- American Veterinary Medical Association – for veterinary schools
- Association of American Medical Colleges – for medical schools
- Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business – for business schools
- National Architectural Accrediting Board – for architecture schools. Graduation from a NAAB-accredited architecture school is a prerequisite to sitting for the architectural licensing exams in most states
- National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration – for public policy schools
Other recognized accreditors
Several organizations exist that accredit institutions and which are not recognized by the DOE or CHEA. These include:
Although many schools related to religious organizations hold regional accreditation or secular national accreditation, there are four different agencies that specialize in accreditation of religious schools:
- Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS)
- Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS)
- Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE)
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS)
These groups specialize in accrediting theological and religious schools including seminaries and graduate schools of theology, as well as broader-scope universities that teach from a religious viewpoint and may require students and/or faculty to subscribe to a statement of faith. Additionally, as of 2009, 20 U.S. states and Puerto Rico had some form of exemption provision under which religious institutions can grant religious degrees without accreditation or government oversight.
Use of .edu top-level Internet domain
Since 2001, the use of the top-level internet domain, .edu has been restricted to accredited institutions, but non-qualifying institutions can still use .edu domain names obtained before the current rules came into force.
Assessments of accreditation
Various commenters have written about the role and effectiveness of the American accreditation system. It has drawn particular interest since the rise of e-learning classes and institutions. A frequent point of discussion and criticism is that the system is limited to measuring "input" factors, such as adequate facilities and properly credentialed faculty, rather than the quality of a school's educational output.
In his 1996 book Crisis in the Academy, Christopher J. Lucas criticized the accreditation system as too expensive, onerously complicated, incestuous in its organization, and not properly tied to quality. Similarly, a 2002 report by George C. Leef and Roxana D. Burris of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) argued that the system does not ensure or protect educational quality, while still imposing significant costs. In a 2006 "issue paper", Robert C. Dickeson wrote that a lack of transparency, low and lax standards, and outdated regionalization were among the problems with regional accreditation. Others, such as Edward M. Elmendorf of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, reject these claims, arguing that they are "picking around the edges" of a proven and necessary system for upholding standards. Others note the specific problem that schools unable or unwilling to meet the standards of traditional accrediting bodies have begun to start their own agencies that may have much less rigorous standards.
At various times the U.S. government has investigated changes to the accreditation system. In 2002 the House of Representatives Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness criticized the system. Accreditation was a major topic of the Spellings Commission, which released its report on September 26, 2006. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes that there are criticisms, but has opposed these calls for reform, with President Judith S. Eaton arguing that the system is successful and needs to remain flexible to accommodate differences between schools and disciplines. In 2013, President Barack Obama proposed changes in the accreditation system to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality". He called on Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are considered in determining which institutions are accredited and allow students access to federal financial aid. 
- List of recognized higher education accreditation organizations
- List of unrecognized higher education accreditation organizations
- "Recognition of Accreditation Organizations: A Comparison of Policy & Practice of Voluntary Accreditation and The United States Department of Education" (PDF). CHEA. January 1998. Retrieved 2009-11-06.
- U.S. Department of Education, Accreditation in the United States
- College Review Journal, Complete List of National Accrediting Agencies.
- Aasen, Adam (November 18, 2008). "Battle rages on accreditation, college money". The Florida Times-Union. Retrieved June 3, 2011.
- Fred F. Harcleroad and Judith S. Eaton (2005), "The Hidden Hand: External Constituencies and their Impact," Chapter 9 in Philip G. Altbach, Robert Oliver Berdahl, and Patricia J. Gumport, editors, American higher education in the twenty-first century: social, political, and economic challenges. Page 263. JHU Press. ISBN 0-8018-8035-1, ISBN 978-0-8018-8035-3.
- History of the North Central Association
- U.S. Department of Education, Accreditation in the United States
- Doug Lederman (February 26, 2007). "Tussling Over Transfer of Credit". Insidehighered.com. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
- Judith S. Eaton, Accreditation and Recognition in the United States, CHEA, 2008.
- Accreditation Search from the United States Department of Education
- 'Accreditation in the United States', United States Department of Education website
- "CHEA Videos: Types of Accreditation". Retrieved 21 December 2012.
- Scott Jaschik (October 19, 2005). "Demanding Credit". Insidehighered.com. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
- Heffter, Emily (2006-02-24). "Student Takes on College and Wins, Seattle Times, February 24, 2006 by Emily Heffter and Nick Perry". Archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
- Billman, Jeffrey C. (April 14, 2005). "Bad Education". Orlandoweekly.com. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
- John Hechinger (October 3, 2005). "A Battle Over Standards At For-Profit Colleges". Wall Street Journal. Collegejournal.com. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
- ASPA: Assn of Specialized & Professional Accreditors – http://www.rwkdesign.com (2003-03-31). "Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors". Aspa-usa.org. Retrieved 2010-06-01.
- The Committee of Bar Examiners, State Bar of California (August 28, 2009). Guidelines for Accredited Law School Rules. Retrieved 2010-10-04.
- Religious Exempt Schools, Oregon Student Assistance Commission Office of Degree Authorization website, accessed March 21, 2011
- ".edu Internet Addresses". Diploma Mills and Accreditation – Diploma Mills. United States Department of Education. Retrieved 2010-02-19
- Reeves, Thomas C. (2003). "Storm Clouds on the Digital Education Horizon". Journal of Computing in Higher Education 15 (1): 12–13. doi:10.1007/BF02940850.
- Lucas, Christopher J. (1996). Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Leef, George C.; Burris, Roxana D. (2002). "Can college accreditation live up to its promise?" (PDF). American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
- Reeves, Thomas C. (2003). "Storm Clouds on the Digital Education Horizon". Journal of Computing in Higher Education 15 (1): 13–14. doi:10.1007/BF02940850.
- Doug Lederman (March 31, 2006). "Dropping a Bomb on Accreditation". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved May 17, 2013.
- Richard Morgan (October 11, 2002). "Lawmakers Call for More Accountability From Accreditation System". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
- Reeves, Thomas C. (2003). "Storm Clouds on the Digital Education Horizon". Journal of Computing in Higher Education 15 (1): 12; 14–15. doi:10.1007/BF02940850.
- Spellings Commission (2006). A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education (PDF). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. p. 5.
Accreditation, along with federal and state regulation, can impede creative new approaches as well.
- Easton, Judith S. (October 7, 2007 (remarks made June 28 and 29, 2001)). "Taking a Look At Ourselves, Accreditation". Letter from the President. Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
U.S. accreditation, then, is a robust, complex and unwieldy and sometimes controversial enterprise. These are the first things that we see when we 'take a look at ourselves, accreditation...'Check date values in:
- Eric Kelderman (February 13, 2013). "Obama's Accreditation Proposals Surprise Higher-Education Leaders". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
- Chris Parr (February 21, 2013). "Obama wants cost to feature in accreditation scheme". Times Higher Education. Retrieved April 19, 2013.
- The Value of Accreditation (PDF). Washington, DC: Council for Higher Education Accreditation. June 2010. p. 6.