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Accreditation in the United States


John A. Stoops

Michael D. Parsons


The word accreditation is derived from the Latin credito (trust). Its application to American schools dates from 1871, when, on the basis of on-site visits by representatives of its faculty, the University of Michigan began "accrediting" secondary schools entrusted with providing adequate preparation for university studies. The practice was soon taken up by universities in nearby states, and in 1884 was adopted by the University of California. In 1899, graduates of 187 high schools in fifteen different states were eligible, by diploma alone, for admission to the University of Michigan.

A Community of Trust

Between 1895 and 1917, American colleges and secondary schools came together in five (later six) regional associations for consensus-building discussions about the developing system of American education. The movement of students from school to school, school to college, and college to college was on the agenda, along with other transactions that depended upon trust among institutions. The regional associations sought a voluntary method for identifying institutions capable of their objectives and worthy of trust, and accreditation became the preferred name of this process.

The diversity of sponsorship and purpose among educational institutions prohibited equating accreditation with advocacy. The regional associations simply wanted to establish that accredited institutions were what they said they were, had what they said they had, and did what they said they did in accordance with standards approved by the American academic community. Anything an accredited institution might say about its staff, facilities, curricula, services, or the accomplishments of its students was presumed to be true. Credibility was therefore essential for successful participation in the free American system. Institutions unwilling or unable to establish credibility through accreditation had to use some other means–none could prosper without it.

Regional School Accrediting Commissions

School accreditation moved from the West and South toward the Northeast. The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA) was founded in 1895 by educational leaders already involved in school accreditation. In 1904, NCA published a list of accredited schools. Also founded in 1895, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) established a commission for secondary school accreditation in 1912. The Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges (NASC) began accrediting colleges and schools in 1917, the year it was founded. It formed a secondary school commission in 1927.

Established in 1887, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA) was initially preoccupied with its successful effort to establish the College Entrance Examination Board. Consequently, MSA did not form a Commission on Secondary Schools until 1922. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which dates from 1885, began accreditation of private secondary schools in 1927, and later public secondary school accreditation moved under the control of the Association. In 1962, California and Hawaii separated from the Northwest Association to form the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) and an accrediting commission for secondary schools.

After the middle of the twentieth century, all regional associations extended accreditation to other kinds and levels of schools. Commissions for elementary schools were established by the Southern Association in 1953, by the Middle States Association in 1978, and by the New England Association in 1987. After 1960, the original commissions for secondary schools of the other three associations were renamed Commissions on Schools, and they extended their missions to include the accreditation of elementary schools. In 1968, The New England Association had begun a commission on vocational and technical education, so by 1990 the American school accreditation establishment included a total of eleven regional commissions.

The Eight-Year Study

In 1932 the young and developing secondary school commissions of the (then) five regional associations implemented a nationwide eight-year study aimed at establishing standards for secondary school accreditation. The study culminated in 1940 with publication of the Secondary School Evaluative Criteria, in which hundreds of the parts of a secondary school were organized and listed, each to be evaluated separately against the backdrop of a community study and the school's philosophy. The intense rigor of the listing commanded wide respect. It appealed to the prevailing mind-set of the industrial age and encouraged the growth and embellishment of the apparatus of secondary education. Even its few critics agreed that the instrument (as it was often called) offered a useful indication of the effort a community was making.

After 1940 the study was incorporated and lived on as the National Study of School Evaluation (NSSE). Governed by the accrediting school commissions, NSSE revised the Criteria every ten years and published other support materials. Despite the growing diversity of accredited schools, the dominance of the Criteria was not challenged until 1980 when a new generation of leaders, influenced by postindustrial models of thought, insisted school evaluations should center on the processes by which the resources given to a school were transformed into desired results.

From Parts to Processes

Moving from disembodied parts to (results-oriented) processes proved to be more than just a bend in the road; it was an entirely different road. Parts no longer had relevance apart from processes, and processes drew relevance only from results. This conversion entailed retraining thousands of schools, commissioners, and evaluators. NSSE and the commissions published new support materials on topics such as strategic planning, cyclical improvement, paradigmatic alignment, energy auditing, impact analysis, critical description, scenario analysis, and synergy development. Some commissions evaluated schools more frequently, using fewer evaluators, and the periodic reports required of accredited schools became action-based, focusing on their movement toward goals that can be empirically defined and verified.

Accreditation standards were also revised. With total acceptance of the ubiquity of change, the commissions reasoned that status quo was incompatible with merit. Accordingly, schools were to be judged on the quality of their movement towards desired goals, and not of their current standing. Standards for accreditation became measures of school improvement activity. Regardless of prior accomplishments, schools had to demonstrate continuous improvement for continuous accreditation. In 1990 the sixth and last edition of the Criteria was published. By 1997 all commissions were using process-oriented protocols, and the methods for school accreditation that had prevailed from 1940 had expired.

National and International Activity

As transportation improved, educators moved most of their deliberations from regional to national venues. Only accreditation, which had prospered from regional governance, continued to be regional. The regional commissions became the sole custodians of its meaning and traditions. They remained connected by their responsibility for NSSE; and, from 1968, they met annually for an exchange of information as part of the Council of Regional School Accrediting Commissions (CORSAC). There was no interest in establishing a national school accreditation authority.

However, American families were becoming increasingly mobile, and the public media were becoming nationally focused. After 1950 some commissions began serving American schools overseas, but efforts to establish regional jurisdictions abroad proved acrimonious. New national educational corporations with schools spread across all regions objected to dealing with different accreditation authorities. So the regional commissions began seeking ways to provide national and international services while preserving the independence they all cherished.

In 1994 the commissions established a "legal platform" for combined activities by replacing CORSAC with a corporation named the International Council of School Accreditation Commissions, Inc. (ICSAC). The first project on this "platform" was conversion of the International Registry of Accredited Schools into a searchable database that is available online. The second was the establishment of a quadrennial international convocation, with the recurring theme of Peace and Justice through Education (Atlanta, 1996 and Chicago, 2000). The third was an umbrella accreditation authority named The Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation (CITA). Designed to accredit kinds and configurations of schools in the United States not easily served by one commission, CITA also accredits the growing number of indigenous schools of foreign nations that have been converting to the American plan of education. (American overseas schools and Department of Defense schools that are overseas continue to be accredited by the separate regional commissions as before.) CITA began operations in 1996. By 2000 the number of schools continuously engaged in CITA accreditation protocols approached 1,000. Its name recognition had become so widespread that, in 2000, ICSAC was renamed CITA, Inc.

Cooperative Activities

The flexibility of process protocols and school improvement standards presented the possibility that school improvement programs and accreditation could be synchronous. After 1985 some systemwide improvement programs for public and Catholic diocesan schools were redesigned as accreditation protocols. Similar collaborations developed between the regional commissions and organizations of special purpose and method schools (e.g., Christian, hearing impaired, Montessori) that enhanced the special rigors of these organizations and schools by offering special accreditation.

To avoid forcing these schools to choose one or the other accreditation (or do both), the commissions exercised their flexibility in designing protocols leading to both regional and special accreditation. In 1993, thirteen of these organizations came together as the National Council for Private School Accreditation (NCPSA), which soon established a working relationship with CITA. In 1999, CITA and NCPSA jointly began the International Academy of Educational Accreditors (IAEA), an agency designed to assist other nations establish accreditation systems.

These cooperative undertakings were fruits of the century-long growth of school accreditation, and of perceptions of its modern potential. It began with secondary schools only and spread to schools of all kinds and levels. At a critical point it moved from assessing effort to examining processes aimed at results. It originated within separate commissions that later acquired the means and determination to combine for national and international endeavors. Positive relations with special accrediting organizations broadened its foundations. By 2001 its voluntary, peer-governed, internally driven, and externally monitored methods were spreading abroad, and its regional commissions were equipped to combine with others as needed.


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One of the primary differences between higher education in the United States and other countries is that there is no centralized government control in the United States. The types of review, oversight, and quality control performed by national education ministries in other nations is performed by private, not-for-profit accrediting agencies in the United States. Accreditation is a process that recognizes a postsecondary institution or a program of study within the institution as having met accrediting standards and qualifications.

Historical Development

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Americans were building colleges and universities at a rate unmatched in the history of humankind. While the numbers were impressive, few of these institutions could meet the loosest definition of a college, and many could not match the quality of today's American high schools. Teachers' colleges, land-grant colleges, women's colleges, black colleges, research universities, and various specialized institutions were developing without anyone being able to answer the basic question, "What is a college?" Not only could this question not be answered, but potential students and their parents could not find an answer to questions about commonly accepted standards for admission to college and for completing a degree once the student was admitted.

The rapid, unregulated, growth helped produce public pressure for some type of rating or evaluation system. Higher quality colleges and universities called for government evaluation as a way to limit competition with what they correctly saw as inferior institutions. In 1870 the U.S. Bureau of Education listed the nation's colleges but did not offer an evaluation of the institutions. The bureau asked the Carnegie Foundation to evaluate the institutions. The foundation completed the study but refused to release the results for fear that the information would be misused. If colleges and universities wanted to be evaluated, then they would have to take up the task themselves.

It was a group of secondary school masters in New England who took the initiative. In 1884 members of the Massachusetts Classical and High School Teachers Association, in cooperation with Harvard University President Charles Eliot, formed the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. This marked the beginning of what would come to be known as the regional accrediting associations. In order of development the six associations were: (1) New England Association of Schools and Colleges, 1885; (2) Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, 1887; (3) Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, 1895; (4) North Central Association of Schools and Colleges, 1895; (5) Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, 1917; and (6) Western Association of Schools and Colleges, 1923.

The regional agencies provide what is known as regional or institutional accreditation for member institutions. While the six regional associations differ in size, traditions, and character, they provide the basic framework for accreditation. Institutional accreditation focuses on issues such as: appropriateness of the institutional mission and objectives; effectiveness of the institution in meeting its mission and objectives; adequacy of financial and physical resources including library holdings, instructional space, laboratories, and offices; quality of faculty; effectiveness of management, including administrative structure and function; and adequacy of personnel and student services offered by the institution.

The basic framework developed over a period of time, as regional associations saw the need to cooperate and negotiate common standards. In 1949 the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commissions in Higher Education (FRACHE) was created. As an association of regional accrediting associations, FRACHE was succeeded by other institutional accrediting associations, and today the regional accrediting associations are represented by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). From FRACHE to CHEA, the associations have attempted to provide coherence and continuity to the rapidly changing accreditation process, serve as a communication and discussion forum for the regional associations, and provide guidance in the revision of regional accreditation policies.

Regional versus Specialized Accreditation

Accreditation arose in the United States as a means of conducting peer evaluation of higher education institutions and programs. In its simplest form, accreditation can be defined as quality control. It is also a way to protect against governmental interference and to ensure academic freedom. In a more complex form, accreditation can be defined as a process in which an institution evaluates its educational mission, goals, objectives, and activities and seeks an independent peer judgment to confirm that it is achieving its goals and objectives and that it is equal to comparable institutions. There are two major types of accrediting associations: regional or institutional accreditation associations and specialized or programmatic accreditation associations.

A regional or institutional accreditation review offers an assessment of the overall quality and integrity of the institution. A team sent from the institution's regional association conducts the assessment. The team spends several days at the institution meeting with its officials, observing classes, and evaluating its facilities and programs. The institution will have prepared its own self-study as part of the preparation for the accreditation review. This report will also help guide and inform the assessment team.

Following the visit, the team writes an evaluation report, which includes an assessment of the institution, a rundown of its strengths and weaknesses, and suggestions for improvement in its curriculum, faculty, and other areas. Generally, institutions are reaccredited for ten years, but accreditation is not a guaranteed outcome when a team visits. If an institution has significant deficiencies, the accreditation association may withhold a decision on its status until the weaknesses have been corrected. The association may schedule return visits to check on the status of improvements and corrections. Finally, in extreme cases, the association may withhold accreditation.

While regional accreditation is responsible for a broad assessment of an institution's quality and integrity, specialized or programmatic accreditation focuses on academic programs that offer curricula in professional and technical fields. The intent is to ensure that graduates entering an accredited professional or technical field possess the necessary skills, knowledge, and competencies required to practice in that field. The earliest specialized accreditation occurred when the American Medical Association (AMA) established the Council on Medical Education and Hospitals in 1904. In 1905 the council adopted standards for medical schools and published its first classification of these schools based on the performance of graduates in licensing examinations. Other professional education programs quickly followed the AMA starting with dental education in 1918 and then legal education in 1923, engineering education in 1936, and pharmaceutical education in 1940.

Today, specialized accreditation is the subject of some controversy as institutions are faced with a proliferation of programmatic accrediting agencies with each making demands on an institution's limited resources. For example, a large public institution such as Indiana University or the University of Illinois might face accreditation visits for business, teacher education, counseling education, education psychology, dental education, law, nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, library sciences, pharmacy, social work, journalism, optometry, psychology, and more. Institutions are concerned about the rising costs and the inflexibility of the specialized accreditation process. Institutional leaders are also concerned about what they see as the self-serving nature of some policies and practices of the specialized associations that seek to expand the associations' authority over institutional resources and policies. This is why some institutions are now rethinking the need for specialized accreditation.

In the meantime, specialized accrediting associations continue to function in much the same way that regional accrediting associations function but on a more limited and focused scale. Students entering programs accredited by specialized associations will know that the program has established appropriate goals and objectives, can provide evidence that these goals and objectives are being met, and has sufficient resources to ensure that the current level of quality will be maintained in the future. Students will also benefit in that accredited programs make it easier for graduates to move from one state to another. For example, graduates of programs accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) can more easily move their teaching licenses from one state to another. This is possible because many states have reciprocity agreements based on graduation from NCATE-accredited schools.

Accreditation and the Federal Government

It is unlikely that accreditation is high on a student's list of concerns when selecting an institution. It is only when an institution is not accredited that a student becomes concerned. One reason is that lack of specialized accreditation will hamper a student's career after graduation. Another more immediate reason is that the federal government uses accreditation as a criterion for student financial aid. A student cannot use federal financial aid to attend an institution that is not accredited by a federally approved accrediting association. Accreditation is part of what is commonly called the "triad" and is a way for the federal government to use existing, nongovernmental agencies to fulfill public policy goals.

The triad establishes relationships between the federal government and eligibility for funding, state government and its responsibility for chartering institutions, and voluntary membership associations that require accreditation for membership. The triad evolved from the passage of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which provided the first broad-based, permanent, federally funded student financial aid programs for students in public and private universities. This act is an authorization statute that must be renewed after a fixed number of years. In the various renewals since 1965, accreditation has taken on an increased role as part of the oversight triad.

In 1992 the Higher Education Act gave the Department of Education increased authority over the accreditation process. Specifically, the Education Department was to require that all regional and specialized associations assess thirteen specific criteria in their reviews:

  • academic calendars, catalogs, publications, grading, and advertising
  • curricula
  • faculty
  • facilities, equipment, and supplies
  • student support services
  • recruiting and admissions practices
  • fiscal and administrative capacity as appropriate for the scale of the institution
  • program length and tuition and fees in relation to the subject matter taught and the objectives of the degree
  • measures of program length in clock hours or credit hours
  • student outcome measures
  • default rate
  • record of student complaints received by the accrediting association or state agency
  • compliance with program responsibilities under Title IV of the Higher Education Act

The intent of these new requirements was to address concerns of fraud and abuse in the federal student aid program. The primary targets of the new requirements were proprietary and vocational schools, but the new rules applied to traditional colleges and universities as well.

The 1998 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act reversed some of the 1992 requirements, thereby returning some control and administrative discretion to the accrediting associations. Still, the reauthorization did not reverse the trend of the federal government taking an increasingly interventionist approach toward the associations. Over a three-decade period, the federal government had become a major investor in higher education with billions of dollars going to student financial aid yearly. The federal government was no longer willing to simply let the voluntary accrediting associations establish the rules of accreditation. The decreased number of fraud and abuse cases has reduced federal pressure on the associations, but the triad will never return to its old relationship of three independent parties acting together to ensure institutional integrity.

Future Issues

Accreditation will remain a defining characteristic of American higher education. The federal government is unwilling to take on the task of accrediting public and private institutions of higher education. Even if there were such a movement, it would not survive institutional, state, and constitutional challenges. This is not to say that accreditation will remain static. Regional accreditation will continue to evolve to meet the needs of institutions just as it has for more than 100 years. Specialized accreditation will face stiffer challenges. It is probable that more and more major universities will discard specialized accreditation. In some fields, teacher education for example, new specialized associations are attempting to challenge NCATE. The federal government will continue to use the associations as part of the triad but will continue to try to intervene in the accreditation process to ensure that federal interests are protected.

Regardless of the accuracy of these predictions, the primary differences between higher education in the United States and other countries will continue to be that there is no centralized control in the United States. The types of review, oversight, and quality control performed by national education ministries in other nations will continue to be performed by private, not-for-profit accrediting agencies in the United States.


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