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Why is Accreditation Important?
Accreditation is the system of recognition and quality assurance for institutions and programs of higher education in the United States. When deciding on a program of study, one of your main concerns should be whether the program is properly accredited. This chapter explains what accreditation is, how it happens, who carries it out, and why it matters to you.
Maintaining Educational Standards in the United States
In most countries, the central government is responsible for maintaining the quality standards of institutions of higher education. In the United States, each U.S. state has its own system of licensing public and private institutions of higher education. Licensing requirements vary greatly from state to state, so licensing by a state education department is not a reliable indicator of whether an institution has met the same standards as other schools in the region or in the country.
How can you know if a U.S. institution or program has met certain standards for quality? In the United States, institutions and programs may demonstrate that they meet and maintain certain educational standards by becoming "accredited." Accreditation is carried out by private, non-governmental organizations called accrediting bodies or accrediting associations, which determine and regulate educational standards. To be an accredited institution of higher education in the United States, an institution has to meet and adhere to the standards of a particular body or association. Being licensed in a particular state is not the same as being accredited.
Why Accreditation Is Important
If the school you attend is not properly accredited, you may find that your degree is not recognized in the United States or other countries, or by other universities, professional associations, employers, and government ministries and departments. Before you apply to study in the United States, check with your home country's department or ministry of education about whether there are any restric-tions on the recognition of U.S. degrees or courses completed at U.S. universities. In particular, ask if there are specific requirements concerning the accreditation of U.S. institutions or programs. Once you have identified institutions in the United States to which you intend to apply, check again with your home country's department or ministry of education to determine whether a degree or academic credits from those institutions will be recognized.
Recognized Accrediting Bodies
There is no legal restriction on the use of the words "accredited," "accrediting body," or "accrediting association" in the United States. As a result, it is important that you check whether an institution and its programs hold accreditation from a "recognized" accrediting body or bodies. To be considered recognized, an accrediting body should meet one or both of the following criteria:
- It is a member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA). To find out, consult the CHEA and ASPA websites.
- It is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. While the U.S. Department of Education is not a higher education "ministry" and is not involved in the process of accrediting institutions, it does publish a database of accredited programs and institutions at www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation.
What Accreditation Means
Specific requirements and standards vary between accrediting bodies. However, any institution or program accredited by a recognized accrediting body must:
- Have an overall stated purpose (often called a mission) that defines the students it serves and the objectives of the institution's or program's activities.
- Control the resources necessary to achieve its purposes; that is, the institution must control its own financial resources, employ adequately prepared faculty and instructional staff, admit only those students whose qualifications make them able to benefit from the programs offered, and present educational programs in a coherent and current manner.
- Be effective in achieving its immediate objectives.
- Give evidence that it will continue to achieve those objectives for the near future.
Accrediting associations assess the performance of an institution or program compared to its stated mission and the accrediting body's standards. Recognized accrediting bodies follow a three-step process to ensure quality:
- The institution carries out a self-study and submits a report to the accrediting body. The self-study and report address the institution's mission, academic programs, faculty, financial, and other tangible resources, information resources, student services, physical facilities, and system of governance.
- An outside group of academics visits the institution to validate what the institution has reported in its self-study, determine whether the institution or program meets the accreditation standards of the agency, make suggestions for the improvement of the institution or program, and submit a report for consideration by the accrediting association's governing body.
- The governing body decides whether or not to grant accreditation. Accreditation is never partial, so there is no difference between the terms "fully accredited" and "accredited."
The process does not end once an institution has successfully had an accreditation visit and decision. Institutions or programs must file annual reports, reply to rulings made by the accrediting body, and undergo regular visits at least once every five to ten years. They must also notify their accreditors if they undergo any significant change - for example, in ownership, mission, location of campuses, or offering of a degree at a higher level.
Accreditation is not a way to rank member institutions. Rather, it is a process that validates the integ-rity of an educational institution. For the student, it is an indication that the institution or program meets certain standards of excellence.
Accrediting associations require institutions to engage in constant self-assessment in order to keep their programs as current as possible. Such assessment ensures that the institution's graduates are prepared for the current needs of society, and that they have developed the capacity for continued learning.
Types of Accreditation
There are two types of accreditation for degree-granting institutions in the United States: institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation reviews and accredits the whole institu-tion. Programmatic accreditation, sometimes called professional accreditation or specialized ac-creditation, deals with programs, departments, or schools within an institution; for example, a physical therapy program, a business school, or a school of engineering. Several accrediting associations or bodies carry out each of these types of accreditation. A single institution may be accredited by both types of accreditors and by multiple institutional or programmatic accreditors.
There are two types of institutional accreditation: regional (the primary type used) and national. Six organizations, which cover different geographic regions of the country, carry out the regional accreditation process. Another six, which cover career-related and faith-related programs, carry out national accreditation. For a complete list please visit the CHEA or U.S. Department of Education websites.
[Watch the CHEA video "Types of Accreditation: What's the Difference"]
While the requirements for regional accreditation vary between different areas of the United States, they are generally considered more stringent than those for national accreditation. Some institutions hold national rather than regional accreditation because they are unwilling or unable to meet the standards of regional accreditation.
For example, regional accrediting bodies require that between one-quarter and one-third of the institution's curriculum be allocated to courses in general education (humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences); this is a problem for some specialized institutions. Another example involves colleges that are controlled by religious denominations that require that certain concepts (for example, creation) be taken on faith; since regional accrediting associations typically require that institutions allow faculty and students the academic freedom to pursue all ideas, these institutions may not be able to meet the standards of regional accreditation.
If you are considering a U.S. institution that holds national accreditation but not regional accredita-tion, be sure to ask the following questions:
- Will my home country's government, professional associations, and employers recognize a degree from an institution accredited by a national accrediting body but not a regional accrediting body?
- Will educational institutions in other countries recognize a degree from a nationally accredited U.S. institution?
- Have graduates of this U.S. institution been able to use their degrees to do what I want to do with my degree? For example, how many have gained entry to a particular field of employment or were accepted into a more advanced degree program offered at another institution?
Note that many regionally accredited U.S. institutions do not recognize credits or degrees earned at other institutions that are nationally accredited or accredited in another region. Be sure to check about this if you decide to transfer from one U.S. institution to another part way through a degree program, or if you plan to pursue degrees at different U.S. institutions; for example, a bachelor's degree from one school and a master's degree from another.
Programmatic accrediting bodies accredit specialized and professional degree programs or depart-ments rather than whole institutions. Very often, such programs or departments are offered, or are based, at institutions that already have institutional accreditation, so you can be assured of their le-gitimacy and general quality.
For a list of the recognized programmatic accrediting bodies in the United States, please visit the CHEA and/or ASPA websites. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes national and regional accrediting bodies and only a limited number of programmatic accreditation agencies.
[Watch the ASPA Video: "Specialized & Professional Accreditation: What Should I Know?"]
For some professions, including those dealing with health (for example, medicine or dentistry) or safety (for example, engineering), you must be a graduate of a program with programmatic ac-creditation in order to practice in a specific field. If you are considering working in a particular profession, check with the licensing body in your home country or where you intend to practice to determine whether programmatic accreditation is a prerequisite for practice before enrolling in a de-gree program. Even if programmatic accreditation is not required for licensure, specialized accreditation offers a guarantee that both the program and the faculty are qualified and current in their profession, as judged by the accrediting body.
Institutions Not Holding Recognized Accreditation
Students at institutions that do not hold some form of recognized regional or national accreditation are likely to encounter difficulties in the following areas:
- They may be ineligible for many loans and scholarships, as well as some other academic honors. For example, many foreign governments will grant educational loans only to students who are attending a regionally accredited institution.
- It may be difficult to transfer credits to, or to have their degrees recognized by, other U.S. institutions that do hold accepted regional or national accreditation.
- Governments of other countries will often not recognize degrees from U.S. institutions that do not hold regional or national accreditation.
- Many private employers will not recognize credits and degrees earned at an institution that is not regionally accredited.
In considering institutions that do not hold accreditation from a recognized body, you need to be aware of two additional factors:
- Recognized accrediting bodies have strict policies to avoid any conflict of interest between the institution being evaluated and those who are doing the evaluating. For example, evaluators cannot be students, alumni, owners, or employees of the institution undergoing the evaluation. This integrity in the accrediting process cannot be guaranteed if the accrediting body is not recognized.
- If you attend an institution that does not hold accreditation from a recognized accrediting body, not only may employers and governments not accept your credits and degree, but you also may not receive as current or comprehensive an education as that offered by institutions accredited by recognized bodies.
If you are considering studying at an institution that does not have proper accreditation, ask for the names of alumni who have used their degrees to do something similar to what you plan to do with yours. Then contact the alumni to ask about their experiences.
If you have any doubt about the accreditation status of a U.S. institution or a U.S. degree program offered in your home country, contact the accrediting body of the institution in the United States directly, or speak to an EducationUSA adviser for further information.
- Accreditation is the system of recognition and quality assurance for institutions and programs in the United States.
- Accreditation is a voluntary process in the United States and is not carried out by a central governing body such as the U.S. Department of Education. Licensing of higher education in-stitutions by state departments of education is not the same as accreditation.
- Recognition of a U.S. degree in the United States and in other countries is often determined by the accreditation status of the institution or program of study. International students should check with their home country ministry of education, council of higher education, or other regulatory body regarding restrictions on recognition of U.S. degrees.
- The process of accreditation requires institutions: to have an appropriate mission; to control the resources to achieve that mission; to meet that mission effectively; and to give evidence that they will continue to meet the mission for the foreseeable future.
- Accrediting bodies require institutions or programs to carry out a detailed self-study and submit a report on that study for approval by the accrediting body. The process of accreditation is ongoing and includes periodic reports and inspections to ensure standards are maintained.
- Accreditation can be institutional, covering the whole institution, or programmatic (sometimes called professional or specialized), covering a program or department within an institution.
- Institutional accreditation may be either regional (more common) or national (less common). If an institution holds national accreditation, students should investigate by whom their degrees, or any credits they earn, will be recognized, as recognition can vary considerably.
- Programmatic accrediting bodies are recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA). Programmatic accreditation of a degree program, department, or school may be a requirement for practicing in certain professions.
Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)
Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA)
U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
* See the CHEA and/or ASPA websites for links to regional, national faith-related, national career-related, and programmatic accrediting organizations.
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