What Is Accreditation?

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation CHEA has many responsibilities. All relate to advancing the usefulness of accreditation in American higher education. In this report, the process, characteristics, and the relationship between accrediting associations and governmental agencies are described.

Accreditation in higher education is a collegial process based on self and peer assessment for public accountability and improvement of academic quality. An accreditation of an academic program or an entire institution typically involves three major activities:

         The faculty, administrators, and staff of the institution or academic program conduct a self study using the accrediting association's set of expectations about quality (standards, criteria) as their guide.

         A team of peers selected by the accrediting association reviews the evidence, visits the campus to interview the faculty and staff, and writes a report of its assessment including a recommendation to the commission of the accrediting association.

         Guided by a set of expectations about quality and integrity, the commission (a group of peer faculty and professionals) reviews the evidence and recommendation, makes a judgment, and communicates the decision to the institution and other constituencies if appropriate.

Accreditation is built on assessment, including both self and peer assessment. Since accreditation begins with a self study by the faculty of the institution or academic program being accredited, it involves self examination and study. Peers external to the institution are also involved in reviewing the self study reports, gathering additional evidence during a site visit, and judging the quality of the program. The commission also tries to understand the academic quality of the institution or program before it makes a judgment. The public announcement is a demonstration of accountability. "Sitting beside" is a good working metaphor for accreditation-one party first understanding the other, then making judgments followed by taking action to fulfill the roles of accountability and assistance.

What Are the Defining Characteristics of Accreditation?

In varying degrees, accreditation in higher education has these characteristics:

         Accreditation involves judgments of quality and effectiveness of an institution/program against a set of expectations (standards, criteria).

         Accreditation is a form of non-governmental self-regulation as contrasted to compliance to state and/or federal rules, regulations, and codes.

         Accreditation is grounded in the institution's or program's mission, history, and sense of purpose.

         Accreditation acknowledges and respects the autonomy and diversity of institutions and programs.

         Accreditation provides assurance to the public that accredited institutions and programs meet or exceed established public expectations (standards) of quality.

         Accreditation is the responsibility of an external commission.

         Faculty involvement is essential to valid accreditation.

         Accreditation is conducted on a cyclic basis, usually 5-10 years. Shorter cycles are used when serious problems are noted.

         Accreditation recently has emphasized student learning and development as an important criterion of effectiveness and quality.

What Is the Role of CHEA in Accreditation?

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) does not accredit individual institutions or academic programs, but recognizes accreditation associations through its review process. CHEA recognition supports the credibility of the collegial process; accrediting associations are judged by their peers. CHEA recognition maintains the tradition of voluntary non-governmental accreditation.

What Is the Role of the United States Department of Education?

The USDE also does not accredit individual institutions or academic programs, but approves accreditation associations.. The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity of the USDE reviews accrediting agencies and state approval agencies for USDE approval.. The Secretary of Education determines if the accrediting association is a reliable authority on the quality of education or training offered. Associations need USDE approval before the institutions they accredit can be eligible to participate in Federal programs (e.g. student financial assistance).

How Does Accreditation Relate to State Licensure?

An institution must receive approval from a state before it can conduct business. Obtaining a state license often does not require demonstration of quality nor accreditation before it can operate.

State licensure also permits individuals to practice the profession in the state once they meet minimal academic requirements. They must take a thorough examination to demonstrate a desired level of competence. In some professions, (e.g. law, medicine, dentistry) students must graduate from an accredited institution or program before they can take the state licensure exams.

Who Conducts Accreditation of American Higher Education?

Private non-governmental organizations (known as accrediting associations, agencies, or bodies) are responsible for accrediting institutions and academic programs. Organizations that accredit entire institutions are called institutional or regional associations. The United States is divided into six regions, with an association responsible for institutions in each geographic area. Institutions that have a single purpose (e.g. Theological schools, Bible Colleges, Health Education, Rabbinical Schools, Career Schools) are accredited by one of several "national" associations. An institutional accreditation is comprehensive, covering financial status, governance, student services, faculty and staff relations and achievements as well as student learning and achievement.

Academic programs that are administratively located in a degree or non-degree granting institutions are accredited by about 50 associations which are called specialized and/or professional. These include academic programs in the professions such as law, engineering, teaching, and health science and professional fields. The quality of the professional preparation of the students is the focus