Accreditation in Higher Education

Accreditation is a peer review process by which educational institutions are recognized and credited for maintaining a high standard of educational quality. This process is organized and regulated by various accreditation committees and commissions, as well as by member institutions (such as universities and colleges). Accreditation of educational institutions began in the 1880's, but only at a regional level; national standards of accreditation were not officially established until the early 20th century. After World War II, accreditation began to play a much larger role in the field of higher education, largely due to the 1952 reinstatement of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (informally known as the GI Bill). This bill offered financial assistance to veterans of the Korean War, to cover living expenses as well as tuition costs for higher education.

A large number of veterans took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled in higher education programs in institutions across the country. In response to this dramatic increase of new students, many new universities and colleges were created; however, it soon became clear to the veterans (as well as to the federal government) that a significant percentage of these new institutions offered programs and training which were of very low quality. The federal government, realizing both the disservice being done to veterans as well as the large amount of taxpayer money being wasted, restricted the GI Bill eligibility to only those schools and universities which were recognized and accredited on a federal level. A list of these accredited institutions was published by the U.S. Commissioner of Education each year. This shift in GI Bill eligibility did not change the standards for accreditation, but it did establish the existing peer review accreditation process as the basis by which an institution's quality is determined.

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are two prominent government organizations that oversee higher education accreditation in the United States. These organizations are not directly involved in the actual process of accreditation; rather, they provide resources, guidelines, and information about accreditation agencies, and recognize which agencies are reputable.

Every year, federal law requires the U.S. Secretary of Education to publish a list of reputable accrediting agencies. Each of these agencies then publish their own lists of accredited educational institutions and programs. Higher education accrediting agencies are divided into two categories: national and regional. The Department of Education holds both categories of agencies equally accountable; they are different only in their degree of oversight. National agencies can accredit schools and colleges throughout the entire country, and even some in other countries. Regional agencies, on the other hand, only accredit institutions in a particular region of the country. These regional agencies therefore have much more oversight over the institutions they accredit. Consequently, regional accrediting agencies are more reputable, and students would benefit more by studying at a regionally accredited school than a nationally accredited school.

Regional accreditors

There are six regional accreditors: one for each geographic region of the United States. These regional accreditors are responsible for evaluating the majority (and in some cases the totality) of education institutions within their region. This includes all elementary schools (public and private), as well as all secondary and post-secondary institutions.

The following chart shows the 6 regional accrediting agencies for higher education institutions in the United States along with the states they serve.
Regional Accreditor Region/Geographic Area
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
New England Association of Schools and Colleges Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
Western Association of Schools and Colleges California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands.
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas.
These agencies have full authority to accredit colleges and post-secondary institutions in their respective states. There are six agencies listed above; however, the list published by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education lists eight agencies. This discrepancy stems from different classification techniques. Two of the agencies listed by CHEA and the DOE are simply subdivisions within the agencies listed in the above chart.

National accreditors

The federal government recognizes a total of 52 national accrediting agencies. In contrast to regional accreditors, which focus on specific geographic areas, national accreditors generally focus on specific types of programs or areas of training. The American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation, for instance, only has authority to accredit dental schools and programs. Of these 52 national accrediting bodies, only 5 are general in nature. They are:

The remaining 47 national accreditors focus on specific programs or types of training. These 47 agencies are known as Programmatic accreditors, and include:

  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE-ADA)
  • Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
  • Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM)
  • Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE)
  • Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
  • Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
  • Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC)
  • American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE)
  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT/COAMFTE)
  • Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
  • American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS) Council for Accreditation (CFA)
  • American Association of Nurse Anesthetists Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (CoA-NA)
  • American Bar Association (ABA) Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
  • American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) Committee on Accreditation
  • American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) Division of Accreditation
  • American Council for Construction Education (ACCE) Board of Trustees
  • American Culinary Federation (ACF) Accrediting Commission
  • American Dental Association (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation
  • American Institute of Certified Planners/Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Planning Accreditation Board (PAB)
  • American Library Association (ALA) Committee on Accreditation (CoA)
  • American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • American Optometric Association (AOA) Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE)
  • American Osteopathic Association Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation
  • American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) Council on Podiatric Medical Education (CPME)
  • American Psychological Association (APA) Committee on Accreditation (CoA)
  • American Society for Microbiology American College of Microbiology
  • American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB)
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology
  • American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Division of Education and Research
  • Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE)
  • Association for Computing Machinery Accreditation Committee
  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
  • Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME)
  • Council on Accreditation for Recreation, Park Resources and Leisure Services, sponsored by National Recreation & Park Assn. (NRPA)
  • Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Commission on English Language Program Accreditation
  • Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation
  • Commission on Opticianry Accreditation
  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)
  • Council on Aviation Accreditation (CAA)
  • Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE) Commission on Accreditation
  • Council on Education for Public Health
  • Council on Naturopathic Medical Education
  • Council on Occupational Education
  • Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE) Commission on Standards and Accreditation
  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Office of Social Work Accreditation and Educational Excellence
  • International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE)
  • Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT)
  • Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT)
  • Liaison Committee on Medical Education
  • Midwifery Education Accreditation Council
  • Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education
  • National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS)
  • National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences (NACCAS)
  • National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB)
  • National Association of Industrial Technology (NAIT)
  • National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women's Health Council on Accreditation
  • National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) Commission on Accreditation
  • National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD) Commission on Accreditation
  • National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) Commission on Accreditation and Commission on Community/Junior College Accreditation
  • National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation (COPRA)
  • National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) Commission on Accreditation
  • National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)
  • National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council
  • National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC)
  • Planning Accreditation Board
  • Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System (PCSAS)
  • Society of American Foresters (SAF)
  • State Bar of California Committee of Bar Examiners
  • Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC)

Regional accreditation vs. national accreditation

The majority of regionally accredited institutions are non-profit academic institutions, whereas the majority of nationally accredited institutions are for-profit vocational institutions which provide technical training programs. There are exceptions to this rule, but it is generally the case.

Regionally accredited programs and nationally accredited programs differ in another important way: the ability to transfer credits from one school to another. It is often very difficult (sometimes impossible) for students to transfer credits earned at a nationally accredited institution to a regionally accredited institution. Students who attended regionally accredited schools are much more likely to be admitted to other institutions as transfer students. Many colleges and universities, in fact, have made the issue a matter of policy, and will only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions. The reason for this (as the regionally accredited institutions explain) is that nationally accredited institutions hold themselves to lower standards, both in terms of educational programs and faculty.

Students who wish to attend a nationally accredited school and then later transfer to a regionally accredited school would be wise to first check whether or not the transfer credits will be accepted.

It is important to verify an institution's accreditation status before enrolling. Many students assume an institution is accredited simply because of its name or the programs available. This method is simply not reliable. A school's accreditation status can be found on its website, or by speaking with an admissions counselor.

Professional and specialized accreditors

The U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education recognize a number of professional and specialized accrediting bodies. These organizations, in affiliation with the Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors, apply a stringent best practices approach to accreditation. Among these accreditors, some of the most popular are:

  • Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
  • American Bar Association
  • American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation
  • American Veterinary Medical Association
  • Association of American Medical Colleges
  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business
  • National Architectural Accrediting Board


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