Higher education accreditation in the United States

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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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] There are regional and national accrediting agencies, both of which are accountable to the Department of Education. Regional bodies generally accredit institutions in a particular region of the country. National bodies commonly accredit institutions across the country, and sometimes beyond it. Within American higher education, regional bodies are considered more prestigious.[4]

Professional schools, which are often graduate schools, have separate organizations for accreditation.

Regional accreditors[edit]

Historically, educational accreditation activities in the United States have been 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.[5][6] These six regional accreditation agencies are 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.[5][6] Accreditation of colleges and universities followed later.[6]

Regional accreditation of higher education applies to the entire institution, specific programs, and distance education within an institution.[7] The higher education institutions holding regional accreditation are primarily non-profit institutions.[8][9][10]

National accreditors[edit]

National accrediting bodies are recognized by the US Department of Education. These include:[11]

Regional accreditation compared to national accreditation[edit]

Regionally accredited schools are usually academically oriented, and most are non-profit. Nationally accredited schools, a large number of which are for-profit, typically 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.[4] However, it is important to note that there have not been any studies to substantiate the claim of the inferiority of national accreditation and nationally accredited schools.

Regionally accredited institutions are less likely to accept transfer credits from nationally accredited schools due to a perception that nationally accredited schools have lower academic standards than their own.[8][15] Schools accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national accreditor, have occasionally been sued for leading prospective students to believe, incorrectly, that they would have no problem transferring their credits to a regionally accredited school.[16][17][18]

Specialized and professional accreditors[edit]

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.[19] The more visible specialized and professional accreditors include:

Other recognized accreditors[edit]

Several organizations exist that accredit institutions and which are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or CHEA. These include:

Religious accreditors[edit]

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:

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.[citation needed] 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.[23][24]

Use of .edu top-level Internet domain[edit]

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.[25]

Assessments of accreditation[edit]

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.[26]

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.[27][28] 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.[29][30] 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.[31] 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.[27][32] 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.[33]

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.[32] Accreditation was a major topic of the Spellings Commission, which released its report on September 26, 2006.[34] The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes that there are criticisms,[35] 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.[32] In 2013, President Barack Obama proposed changes in the accreditation system to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality".[36] 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.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Recognition under review as of April 2018 following court reversal of December 2016 decision to remove recognition.[12][13][14]


  1. ^ "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.
  2. ^ U.S. Department of Education, Accreditation in the United States
  3. ^ College Review Journal, Complete List of National Accrediting Agencies Archived 2011-06-16 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ a b Aasen, Adam (November 18, 2008). "Battle rages on accreditation, college money". The Florida Times-Union. Retrieved June 3, 2011.
  5. ^ a b 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.
  6. ^ a b c History of the North Central Association
  7. ^ U.S. Department of Education, Accreditation in the United States
  8. ^ a b Lederman, Doug (February 26, 2007). "Tussling Over Transfer of Credit". Insidehighered.com. Retrieved June 1, 2010.
  9. ^ 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}}
  10. ^ Lechuga, Vicente (2005). The Changing Landscape of the Academic Profession. Routledge. p. 48. Regional accreditation is considered more prestigious than national accreditation.
  11. ^ "Regional Accrediting Agencies". ed.gov. US Department of Education. Retrieved November 7, 2017.
  12. ^ "Education Department Establishes Enhanced Federal Aid Participation Requirements for ACICS-accredited Colleges" (Press release). United States Department of Education. December 12, 2016. Archived from the original on December 26, 2016. Retrieved December 28, 2016.
  13. ^ Adam Harris (March 25, 2018). "Federal Judge Hands a Victory to Embattled Accreditor". The Chronicle of Higher Education.
  14. ^ Betsy DeVos (Education Secretary) (April 3, 2018). "In the matter of Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools" (PDF). USDE.
  15. ^ Jaschik, Scott (October 19, 2005). "Demanding Credit". Insidehighered.com. Retrieved June 1, 2010.
  16. ^ Heffter, Emily; Perry, Nick (February 24, 2006). "Student Takes on College and Wins". Seattle Times. Retrieved June 1, 2010 – via nwsource.com.
  17. ^ Billman, Jeffrey C. (April 14, 2005). "Bad Education". Orlandoweekly.com. Retrieved June 1, 2010.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ "Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors". ASPA-USA.org. March 31, 2003. Retrieved June 1, 2010.
  20. ^ "Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)". Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
  21. ^ "Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education". American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
  22. ^ The Committee of Bar Examiners, State Bar of California (August 28, 2009). Guidelines for Accredited Law School Rules. Retrieved October 4, 2010.
  23. ^ Religious Exempt Schools Archived 2011-02-21 at the Wayback Machine, Oregon Student Assistance Commission Office of Degree Authorization website, accessed March 21, 2011
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^ ".edu Internet Addresses". Diploma Mills and Accreditation – Diploma Mills. United States Department of Education. Retrieved February 19, 2010
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ a b Reeves, Thomas C. (2003). "Storm Clouds on the Digital Education Horizon". Journal of Computing in Higher Education. 15 (1): 14. doi:10.1007/BF02940850.
  28. ^ Lucas, Christopher J. (1996). Crisis in the Academy: Rethinking Higher Education in America. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  29. ^ 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 |journal= (help)
  30. ^ 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.
  31. ^ Doug Lederman (March 31, 2006). "Dropping a Bomb on Accreditation". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved May 17, 2013.
  32. ^ a b c Richard Morgan (October 11, 2002). "Lawmakers Call for More Accountability From Accreditation System". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved September 7, 2012.
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ 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.
  35. ^ 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...'
  36. ^ Eric Kelderman (February 13, 2013). "Obama's Accreditation Proposals Surprise Higher-Education Leaders". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved April 12, 2013.
  37. ^ Chris Parr (February 21, 2013). "Obama wants cost to feature in accreditation scheme". Times Higher Education. Retrieved April 19, 2013.