Accreditation: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

ACCREDITATION:  College administrators generally know what accreditation is and why it is important, but new administrators will benefit from the brief primer of this complex process in higher education. The following article is intended as a primer for those not familiar with accreditation and may be reproduced for distribution provided the author’s by-line and bio (as it appears in its entirety) is included in the reprint.

 

There’s a lot to think about when choosing a college. The reputation of the school, quality of the degree programs, faculty qualifications, library and information services, student services and extracurricular activities are all things students and their parents want to know before making their final decision. Students also know it’s important to attend an accredited college. But what is “accreditation,” how does it work, and why is it important to select a college that is accredited?

Accreditation is a process of quality control that ensures an institution is authorized by the appropriate local or state governing organizations and approved by the state’s department of education. Accreditation also ensures that a college operates in a sound, ethical manner as determined by the institution’s ability to comply with a series of criteria established by the accrediting agency. In the United States, peer review is the foundation of accreditation. The quality of educational programs is monitored by private, nongovernmental organizations established specifically for this purpose. Accrediting organizations are approved by the US Department of Education or recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) which is authorized by the Department of Education to approve accrediting organizations.

There are three basic types of organizations approved to award accredited status:  Regional, National and Programmatic.  National accreditation includes career and faith related accreditation programs. National career-related organizations recognized by CHEA include the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) and the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) Accreditation Commission.  Four faith-related accreditation programs are approved by CHEA including, for example, the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).  Programmatic accreditation is specific to the academic course of study and generally sponsored by a professional organization. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) are examples of programmatic accrediting organizations.  Unlike national accreditation which is based on career interest or faith-base, regional accreditation is based on geographic location of the approved institution.  There are six regional accrediting organizations:  Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA), New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NCCU), Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC)

The accreditation self-study process is a rigorous, objective assessment validated by other professionals. Students who select an accredited institution and their parents can know that the college meets quality standards and conducts its business in an ethical manner.

The accreditation process begins with a self-study which covers everything from the institution’s ability to provide a quality educational program to how it publishes information about itself. Generally conducted by a committee of faculty and administrators, self-study results in a report that compares the school to certain criteria developed by the accrediting agency.  The self-study report reflects how the institution measures up against the criteria outlined by their accrediting body. A visiting team is recruited by the accrediting agency from among its member institutions to go to the college and evaluate the validity of the self-study report. The team prepares a summary report that outlines how well the institution meets the accreditation criteria. Based on this report, the accrediting agency determines if the institution will be accredited.

When an institution is accredited, it becomes eligible to offer certain federal or state grants and loans to its students which are not available at non-accredited institutions. Many state licensure examinations require that those taking the licensing exams have completed an accredited program.

A complete list of CHEA approved accrediting organizations/commissions can be viewed at http://www.chea.org/Directories/

For more information about accreditation or to access a database of accredited institutions listed by the department of education visit the US Department of Education’s search site at http://www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/Search.asp

Marylin Newell is the founder and lead consultant for College Matters, an Executive Coaching and Consulting firm specializing in higher education. More information about College Matters and additional articles on topics of interest in higher education are available at www.collegematters.us

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