Higher education accreditation is an essential element of any education system because, properly administered, it guarantees the credibility of the degrees and certifications from colleges and universities. It’s meant to be a third-party guarantee of quality in education, involving a process designed to assure prospective students, potential employers of its graduates, and lenders that the institution in fact delivers a good education and that graduates will have achieved a level of competence in their fields. In fact, the words “accreditation,” “credibility” and “credentials” share the same Latin root: credibilitas. In many countries, this credibility is asserted by government agencies, but in the United States, the responsibility is fulfilled by not-for-profit organizations of education professionals.
There are around 80 organizations in the US involved in higher education accreditation. These organizations accredit institutions, generally degree-granting, in four different areas. Regional institutional accreditors accredit public and private two- and four-year institutions. National faith-based accreditors accredit institutions, usually private, that are religiously affiliated or doctrinally oriented, such as a seminary. National career-related accreditors’ efforts are focused on single-purpose institutions, such as culinary arts schools. Finally, programmatic accreditors accredit specific programs within a college or university, such as law, nursing or teaching.
Most American colleges and all universities, then, will be accredited not only by one or more regional institutional accreditors, but also by potentially dozens of programmatic accreditors. Higher education accreditation is sought and earned by the deliberate efforts of the college, university or other institution of higher education. It’s a voluntary process by which the institution undergoing accreditation is evaluated according to objective standards of academic quality. Thus, the institution must actively seek accreditation.
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The process followed is generally the same whether the accreditation sought is for the institution itself or one of the academic programs it offers. Higher education accreditation is basically an inspection, and it’s appropriate that the institution prepare itself with a thorough and honest self-evaluation consistent with the standards of the accrediting organization. This is basically a compilation of the institution’s accomplishments and standards in all areas, such as the requirements for earning a degree and the number of students who’ve met those requirements. Another significant area is the qualifications and accomplishments of the faculty. After the self-evaluation is done, there’s a period of peer review, which involves education professionals, usually from other colleges and universities, reviewing the materials produced during the self-evaluation and adding their own comments and suggestions.
The next step in the higher education accreditation process is a site visit conducted by the accrediting organization. The visitation team generally includes education professionals and interested laypersons who are members of the accrediting organization, usually on a volunteer basis. The judgment of the accrediting organization follows the site visit — this is the actual award or accreditation. Finally, accredited institutions must maintain their accreditation by periodic self-evaluations and site visits, combined with a deliberate effort to improve the quality of the educational services they deliver.
There are many advantages of accreditation, not the least of which is that much of the financial aid available to students is contingent upon accreditation of the institution and program. Startup schools generally have accreditation as their first major institutional goal, and losing accreditation is a calamitous event in the life of a college, university or other school, which often cannot be overcome.