Higher education accreditation in the United States is a peer review process coordinated by accreditation commissions and member institutions. It was first undertaken in the late 19th century by cooperating educational institutions.
- Regional accreditors
- National accreditors
- Regional accreditation compared to national accreditation
- Specialized and professional accreditors
- Other recognized accreditors
- Religious accreditors
- Use of .edu top level Internet domain
- Assessments of accreditation
The federal government began to play a limited role in higher education accreditation in 1952 with reauthorization of the GI Bill for Korean War veterans. The original GI Bill legislation had stimulated establishment of new colleges and universities to accommodate the influx of new students; but some of these new institutions were of dubious quality. The 1952 legislation designated the existing peer review process as the basis for measuring institutional quality; GI Bill eligibility was limited to students enrolled at accredited institutions included on a list of federally recognized accredited institutions published by the U.S. Commissioner of Education.
The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) (a non-governmental organization) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education and provide guidelines as well as resources and relevant data regarding these accreditors. Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor CHEA accredit individual institutions.
With the creation of the U.S. Department of Education and under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, the U.S. Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary has determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit. There are regional and national accrediting agencies, both of which are accountable to the Department of Education. Regional bodies have more oversight and accredit institutions in a particular region of the country. National bodies have less oversight in their policy and commonly accredit institutions across the country, and sometimes beyond it. Within American higher education, regional bodies are considered more reputable.
Historically, educational accreditation activities in the United States has been overseen by six regional accrediting agencies established in the late 19th and early 20th century to foster articulation between secondary schools and higher education institutions, particularly colleges and universities evaluation of prospective students. These six regional accreditation agencies are membership organizations of educational institutions within their geographic regions. Initially, the main focus of the organizations was to accredit secondary schools and to establish uniform college entrance requirements. Accreditation of colleges and universities followed later.
Regional accreditation of higher education applies to the entire institution, specific programs, and distance education within an institution as do many national accreditors. The higher education institutions holding regional accreditation are non-profit institutions.
Ten national accrediting bodies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. These are:
Regional accreditation compared to national accreditation
Regionally accredited schools are usually academically oriented, and are non-profit. Nationally accredited schools, a large number of which are for-profit, typically offer vocational, career or technical programs. Within the American higher education system, critics note that national accrediting bodies (though not necessarily all nationally accredited schools) have much lower standards than regional bodies, and consider them disreputable for this reason.
Regionally accredited institutions usually do not accept transfer credits from nationally accredited schools, because they believe that nationally accredited schools have lower, sometimes much lower, academic standards than their own. There has been a lawsuit regarding the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national accreditor, who led six prospective students to believe that they would have no problem transferring their credits to regionally accredited school.
Specialized and professional accreditors
Specialized and professional accreditors are recognized as reputable by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Best practices are shared and developed through affiliation with the Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors. The more visible specialized and professional accreditors include:
Other recognized accreditors
Several organizations exist that accredit institutions and which are not recognized by the DOE or CHEA. These include:
Although many schools related to religious organizations hold regional accreditation or secular national accreditation, there are four different agencies that specialize in accreditation of religious schools:
These groups specialize in accrediting theological and religious schools including seminaries and graduate schools of theology, as well as broader-scope universities that teach from a religious viewpoint and may require students and/or faculty to subscribe to a statement of faith. Additionally, as of 2009, 20 U.S. states and Puerto Rico had some form of exemption provision under which religious institutions can grant religious degrees without accreditation or government oversight.
Use of .edu top-level Internet domain
Since 2001, the use of the top-level internet domain, .edu has been restricted to accredited institutions, but non-qualifying institutions can still use .edu domain names obtained before the current rules came into force.
Assessments of accreditation
Various commenters have written about the role and effectiveness of the American accreditation system. It has drawn particular interest since the rise of e-learning classes and institutions. A frequent point of discussion and criticism is that the system is limited to measuring "input" factors, such as adequate facilities and properly credentialed faculty, rather than the quality of a school's educational output.
In his 1996 book Crisis in the Academy, Christopher J. Lucas criticized the accreditation system as too expensive, onerously complicated, incestuous in its organization, and not properly tied to quality. Similarly, a 2002 report by George C. Leef and Roxana D. Burris of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) argued that the system does not ensure or protect educational quality, while still imposing significant costs. In a 2006 "issue paper", Robert C. Dickeson wrote that a lack of transparency, low and lax standards, and outdated regionalization were among the problems with regional accreditation. Others, such as Edward M. Elmendorf of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, reject these claims, arguing that they are "picking around the edges" of a proven and necessary system for upholding standards. Others note the specific problem that schools unable or unwilling to meet the standards of traditional accrediting bodies have begun to start their own agencies that may have much less rigorous standards.
At various times the U.S. government has investigated changes to the accreditation system. In 2002 the House of Representatives Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness criticized the system. Accreditation was a major topic of the Spellings Commission, which released its report on September 26, 2006. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes that there are criticisms, but has opposed these calls for reform, with President Judith S. Eaton arguing that the system is successful and needs to remain flexible to accommodate differences between schools and disciplines. In 2013, President Barack Obama proposed changes in the accreditation system to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality". He requested Congress change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are considered in determining which institutions are accredited and allow students access to federal financial aid.