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, on a regional basis.
The federal government began to play a limited role in higher education accreditation in 1952 with reauthorization of the G.I. 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.
Professional schools, which are often graduate schools, have separate organizations for accreditation.
Prior to 2020, there were regional and national accrediting agencies, both of which were accountable to the Department of Education. Regional bodies historically accredited institutions in a particular region of the country. National bodies were established to accredit institutions across the country, and sometimes beyond it. Within American higher education, regional bodies were considered more prestigious. In February 2020 the Department of Education eliminated the distinction between regional and national accrediting agencies, creating one unified set of institutional accreditors. The department claimed that the change was intended to encourage cooperation between accredited schools to improve student experiences, uphold quality standards, and reduce the cost of higher education by encouraging transparent transfer of credits and mutual recognition of degrees between schools with common standards. It also claimed that the change was intended to allow students to able to access the best school for their needs no matter what region they reside in.
Historically, educational accreditation activities in the United States were overseen by six regional accrediting agencies established in the late 19th and early 20th century to foster articulation between secondary schools and higher education institutions, particularly evaluation of prospective students by colleges and universities. These six agencies were membership organizations of educational institutions within their geographic regions. Initially, the main focus of the organizations was to accredit secondary schools and to establish uniform college entrance requirements. Accreditation of colleges and universities followed later with each of the accrediting agencies splitting into separate organizations with one or more of those organizations focused exclusively on accrediting colleges and universities. The higher education institutions holding regional accreditation were primarily non-profit institutions with significant exceptions, as the largest US for-profit universities (University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University, Strayer/Capella University) were regionally accredited.
Regionally accredited schools were usually academically oriented and most were non-profit. Nationally accredited schools, a large number of which are for-profit, typically offered specific vocational, career, or technical programs. Regionally accredited institutions employed large numbers of full-time faculty, and the faculty set the academic policies. Regionally-accredited schools were required to have adequate library facilities. Except for some specific subject areas such as nursing, nationally-accredited schools did not hire many full-time faculty, usually hiring faculty by the course, without benefits and with no influence on the school's academic policies, which were determined by non-academic administrators, and ultimately investors. Their library facilities, if they existed at all, were far inferior to those of regionally-accredited schools. While there were some legitimate and well-intentioned nationally accredited schools, by and large they existed not to educate, but to make money for their investors. They lived on federal student aid and very high tuitions, often leaving graduating students with credentials of little value and large student loans, often without job prospects by which to pay them off. Critics considered national accreditation to be disreputable. Schools accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national accreditor, were occasionally sued for leading prospective students to believe, incorrectly, that they would have no problem transferring their credits to a regionally accredited school.
Recognized institutional accreditors
The U.S. Department of Education recognizes the following organizations as institutional accreditors:
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges: Accredits institutions that grant associate, baccalaureate degrees, and master's degrees. These institutions primarily focus on occupational, trade, and technical careers.
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training: Accredits institutions that offer continuing education and vocational programs including certificates or occupational associate degrees.
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools: Accredits institutions that offer certificates, diplomas, associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, and master's degrees. These institutions focus on professional, technical, and occupational careers.
- Council on Occupational Education: Accredits institutions that offer non-degree and applied associate degree programs. These institutions focus mostly on specific career and technical education fields.
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission: Accredits institutions that offer degree and non-degree programs primarily using distance or correspondence education.
- Higher Learning Commission: Accredits degree-granting institutions with a historical focus on those in the states of Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education: Accredits degree-granting institutions with a historical focus on those in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- Middle States Commission on Secondary Schools: Accredits non-degree granting career and technology programs in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- New England Commission of Higher Education: Accredits institutions with a historical focus on those in the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
- New York State Board of Regents and the Commissioner of Education: Accredits degree-granting institutions in the state of New York.
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities: Accredits degree-granting institutions with a historical focus on those in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools: Accredits degree-granting institutions with a historical focus on those in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
- WASC Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges: Accredits degree-granting institutions with a historical focus on those in California, Hawaii, the United States territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. These institutions primarily award associate degrees but may award other credentials including bachelor's degrees.
- WASC Senior Colleges and University Commission: Accredits degree-granting institutions in California, Hawaii, the United States territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. These institutions primarily award degrees at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral level.
Specialized and professional accreditors
Specialized and professional accreditors are recognized as reputable by the U.S. Department of Education 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 Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
- Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology – for applied science, computing, engineering, and technology programs
- Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) - for business schools
- 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 for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), Commission on Accreditation
- Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS)
- Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) – for business schools
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
- Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA)
- Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation – for medical schools that grant a DO degree
- Liaison Committee on Medical Education – for medical schools that grant an MD degree
- 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 U.S. Department of Education 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.
Criticism 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 traditional 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. Critics note that many for-profit schools were created for profit motives, to provide an often misleading veneer of respectability for education that is sub-standard.
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 requested Congress 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; his criticism was directed at for-profit institutions.
An article published by "University World News" on 2 February 2018 stated that the higher education accreditation community, which confers the quality-assurance seal of approval that allows United States colleges and universities access to billions of dollars of federal student aid, must do a better job of explaining itself to the public if it wants to reverse waning public confidence in higher education. That was one of the tamer recommendations voiced at a conference for accreditors, who are feeling the brunt of growing scepticism about the value of a US college degree.
- List of recognized higher education accreditation organizations
- List of unrecognized higher education accreditation organizations
- Accreditation mill
- "Recognition of Accreditation Organizations: A Comparison of Policy & Practice of Voluntary Accreditation and The United States Department of Education" (PDF). CHEA. January 1998. Archived from the original (PDF) on June 15, 2010. Retrieved November 6, 2009.
- U.S. Department of Education, Accreditation in the United States
- College Review Journal, Complete List of National Accrediting Agencies Archived 2011-06-16 at the Wayback Machine.
- U.S. Department of Education, Accreditation in the United States
- Aasen, Adam (November 18, 2008). "Battle rages on accreditation, college money". The Florida Times-Union. Retrieved June 3, 2011.
- 2020 February USDoEd Final Accreditation and State Authorization Regulations 
- Judith Eaton, CHEA President Expresses Pros and Cons for Regionals going National https://www.chea.org/will-regional-accreditation-go-national-0
- 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
- Judith S. Eaton, Accreditation and Recognition in the United States Archived 2012-03-07 at the Wayback Machine, CHEA, 2008. |title=Regional Accreditation vs National Accreditation for Online Colleges |url=https://www.geteducated.com/regional-vs-national-accreditation-which-is-better-for-online-colleges |author=Geteducated.com |access-date=March 20, 2018}}
- Lechuga, Vicente (2005). The Changing Landscape of the Academic Profession. Routledge. p. 48. ISBN 9781135508678.
Regional accreditation is considered more prestigious than national accreditation.
- Heffter, Emily; Perry, Nick (February 24, 2006). "Student Takes on College and Wins". Seattle Times. Retrieved June 1, 2010 – via nwsource.com.
- Billman, Jeffrey C. (April 14, 2005). "Bad Education". Orlandoweekly.com. Retrieved June 1, 2010.
- Hechinger, John (October 3, 2005). "A Battle Over Standards At For-Profit Colleges". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on December 4, 2008. Retrieved June 1, 2010 – via Collegejournal.com.
- "Institutional Accrediting Agencies". U.S. Department of Education. 2020. Retrieved November 10, 2020.
- "Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors". ASPA-USA.org. March 31, 2003. Retrieved June 1, 2010.
- "Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)". Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
- "Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education". American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
- The Committee of Bar Examiners, State Bar of California (August 28, 2009). Guidelines for Accredited Law School Rules. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
- Religious Exempt Schools Archived 2011-02-21 at the Wayback Machine, Oregon Student Assistance Commission Office of Degree Authorization website, accessed March 21, 2011
- EXEMPTIONS FROM THE HIGHER EDUCATION LICENSING PROCESS FOR RELIGIOUS COLLEGES Archived 2018-03-21 at the Wayback Machine, Connecticut General Assembly website, accessed March 21, 2018
- ".edu Internet Addresses". Diploma Mills and Accreditation – Diploma Mills. United States Department of Education. Retrieved February 19, 2010.
- 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.
- Reeves, Thomas C. (2003). "Storm Clouds on the Digital Education Horizon". Journal of Computing in Higher Education. 15 (1): 14. 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. Cite journal requires
- 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.
Eaton, Judith S. (June 28–29, 2001). "Taking a look at ourselves, accreditation". Letter from the President. Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Archived from the original on March 22, 2013. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
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...'
- 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.
- Mary Beth Marklein (February 2, 2018). "HE accreditation sector faces pressure to reform". Retrieved August 19, 2020.