According to the United States Department of Education, the goal of accrediting post-secondary institutions “is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.” It is also the mechanism for determining whether financial aid will be available to students.
The U.S. Department of Education does not do accrediting itself, but it is required to keep a list of accrediting bodies that the Secretary of Education has determined are reliable authorities to determine quality. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a private non-profit organization that works with the USDE to evaluate and recognize accrediting agencies to ensure the quality of their standards and activities. Only the students at institutions accredited by a recognized agency are eligible for federal financial aid.
According to CHEA, there are about 19 recognized agencies accrediting colleges and universities and about 60 recognized agencies accrediting programs. These are non-governmental agencies that rely on peer evaluations for accreditation decisions. Additionally, there are national specialized agencies that accredit single purpose institutions, programs, and curricula based on specific content and occupational standards, such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education that accredits schools of education and education programs within colleges and universities.
Criteria for Accreditation
An accrediting agency has a set of criteria by which it evaluates the institution or program. These criteria fall under broad categories that include such things as mission, integrity of conduct, quality of teaching and learning, process of continuous improvement and institutional effectiveness. They will pay attention to such details as the assessment system, course rigor, faculty qualifications and scholarship, faculty participation in governance, data management, use of technology and service to students. Student success is also evaluated by investigating retention, persistence and completion rates.
The process of accreditation includes several steps starting with a self-study and submission of extensive paperwork addressing the agency’s criteria. This paperwork is reviewed for comment by faculty, administrators and members of the public. Next the accrediting agency sends a team of volunteers, usually professors and administrators from other institutions, to evaluate documents, speak to faculty and students, and observe operations for consistency with the claims made in the submitted paperwork. The visiting team prepares a report and makes a recommendation to a decision-making commission or board of the agency.
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- U.S. Department of Education: Accreditation in the United States
- U.S. Department of Education: The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation: The Fundamentals of Accreditation
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation: Information About Accreditaiton.
- Higher Learning Commission: The Criteria for Accreditation and Core Components
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images