College Accreditation in the U.S.:

Past, Present and Future

What Is Accreditation

If you want your education credentials to be taken seriously in the United States, you need to earn them at an accredited school. Whether a traditional or online school, accreditation is an official stamp of approval recognized by other schools, employers and the government. Accreditation means an independent agency has reviewed a school and/or program to ensure it meets predetermined quality standards on an ongoing basis.

Accreditation exists for all types of educational institutions from vocational schools to degree-granting universities. Attending an accredited school is just as important for a student considering training for a sonography career as it is for someone selecting a law school. Online degree program accreditation is particularly important, as there are many so-called online “diploma mills” more interested in making a profit than in educating students.

The consequences of selecting a non-accredited degree or program can be significant. Most American employers only hire job candidates who’ve graduated from accredited schools. Also, many accredited colleges won’t accept credits from non-accredited institutions. And, very importantly, only accredited colleges and universities qualify for federal and state financial aid.

History of College Accreditation

The college accreditation process in the Unites States has changed little since the first accrediting agencies formed in the 1880s. The original goal of accreditation was to provide minimum quality standards for institutions of higher education both regionally and nationally. Eventually professional schools also began developing accreditation standards specific to their disciplines. By the 1930s, standards for college accreditation had a solid foothold.

The federal government did not become involved in the accreditation process until the advent of the GI Bill, when it found itself spending a large amount of tax dollars on education. The Veteran’s Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952 mandated the U.S. Secretary of Education (then Commissioner of Education) to publish a list of officially recognized accreditation associations. By 1965, Congress enacted the Higher Education Act, authorizing the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to withhold federal financial assistance from schools not accredited by DOE-recognized agencies.

Types of Accreditation in the United States

Although companies, schools and the government require accreditation for employment, transfer or aid, not all accrediting bodies serve the same purpose. In other words, it’s important to thorough vet a college’s accreditation type and status before applying. In the United States, two main forms of accreditation exist:

Institutional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation applies to a college or university as a whole. During the process, accrediting bodies evaluate a school’s various programs to ensure each contributes sufficiently to the overall institutions academic goals. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes two different types of institutional accrediting bodies: national and regional.

Regional Accreditation

Accreditation of a regional variety is the norm in academia. All state colleges and universities hold regional accreditation from one of six geographically focused agencies – each with oversight over a specific set of states:

  • Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Montana.
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges: California and Hawaii
  • North Central Association of Colleges and Schools: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia.
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
  • Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
National Accreditation

Schools that seek national accreditation usually fall slightly outside of the traditional (regional) norm. For example, vocational schools, career colleges and for-profit universities. Leading national accrediting agencies include:

National accrediting bodies often look at a different set of criteria, and, when possible, compare accreditation-seeking institutions against each other. It’s worth noting that while many nationally accredited institutions accept credits from regionally accredited ones, it usually doesn’t work the other way around.

Specialized Accreditation

Also known as program-based accreditation, specialized accreditation focuses on specific degrees and programs within a college or university. Programs that typically seek special accreditation include medicine, nursing, engineering, law and dentistry. Primary specialized accrediting bodies include:

  • American Medical Association (AMA) accredits medical programs
  • Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET) accredits engineering programs
  • American Dental Association (ADA) accredits dentistry programs.
  • National Nursing League (NLN) accredits nursing programs
  • American Bar Association (ABA) accredits law school programs
  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredits business and accounting programs

College Accreditation Challenges

As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act in 2014, lawmakers, college administrators, and accrediting agencies are debating the relevance of a system that’s been in place for more than a century. Changes in education, particularly those brought on by new technologies, such as online learning, challenge the status quo. Competency-based education, which allows students to progress at their own pace by mastering measured “competencies” rather than spending a fixed amount of time in class, has no place in the current accreditation system.

Critics also say the modern process of accreditation requires a substantial investment of an institution’s resources and places a huge financial burden on schools. And, because college accreditation is based on a peer-review system, accreditation agencies are funded and staffed by the very institutions they are tasked with monitoring. The actions of the six regional accrediting bodies charged with accrediting most of the colleges and universities in the nation are often shrouded in mystery. Their reports are not published or made public, so it can be difficult to find out if, for instance, an institution is in financial trouble.

The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is also taking place in conjunction with the Obama administration’s proposal to develop a rating system for colleges based on student outcomes and value. Democrats argue that accreditation doesn’t do enough to safeguard students from programs that saddle them with worthless degrees and staggering debt.

Calls for a Fresh Approach

Some lawmakers, such as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are advocating for drafting a new Higher Education Act “from scratch.” Hank Brown, a former U.S. congressman, senator and president of the University of Colorado, writes in a paper published in September 2013, that the nation’s accreditation system is a “public policy and regulatory failure by almost any measure.”

Currently, institutions are evaluated based on “input” factors, including the quality of their facilities, the quality and number of their faculty and their mission statements. Brown notes in his paper that many institutions remain accredited, but have six-year graduation rates of less than 25 percent. He argues that lawmakers should consider reforms ranging from expanding the number of accrediting agencies to separating an institution’s eligibility for federal funding from the accreditation process.

At the very least, critics argue, the accreditation process must be more open, with results published and easily accessible. “Accreditation has given students, parents, and public decision makers little useful information about institutions of higher education,” writes Brown in his report. “The consumer knows only one thing: the seal of approval has been bestowed.”

The Accreditation Agency Viewpoint

Accreditation agencies say they are working to respond to changes in the educational landscape and that universities have exaggerated accreditation-related expenses. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which represents 3,000 accredited colleges and recognizes 60 accrediting organizations, acknowledges that accreditation must change in some ways. Yet it generally advocates for preserving many current practices, especially the review process that places the evaluation of institutions in the hands of fellow academics.

CHEA argues that increased DOE oversight over accrediting agencies will create a system similar to countries with ministries of education and threaten the independence of the accreditation process and the academic sovereignty of colleges and universities.

Potential Outcomes

The U.S. Senate’s education committee has formally begun the process of updating the Higher Education Act and plans to hold 11 fact-finding hearings before producing a draft for review in early 2014. Brown continues to recommend several reform measures, many of which have been proposed during previous reauthorization debates, including:

  • Severing the link between accreditation and federal financial aid.
  • Requiring colleges to disclose data on student learning, debt, and post-graduation incomes.
  • Streamlining the process for colleges that voluntarily disclose that and other information.

The Chronicle of Higher Education predicts “lawmakers will look for new ways to hold colleges accountable for their costs and outcomes. They’ll pursue changes in the nation’s accreditation system that colleges probably won’t like, and they’ll seek to promote new, cheaper models of learning, such as competency-based education.”

There is no question that changes to the college accreditation system are afoot. What remains to be seen is how broad and far-reaching they will be.