Accreditation is a voluntary, non-governmental process of self-regulation of higher education that serves two purposes: assuring the public of quality and fostering institutional improvement. The Commission’s Standards for Accreditation establish criteria for institutional quality. The Standards are essentially qualitative criteria that measure the institution’s current state of educational effectiveness. They allow the Commission to appraise a wide variety of collegiate institutions, differing in purpose, size, organization, scope of program, clientele served, support, and control. The non-prescriptive nature of the Standards is meant to encourage innovation aimed at increasing the effectiveness of higher education.
Accredited colleges and universities demonstrate their integrity through their continued voluntary compliance with the Standards for Accreditation. This system of accreditation is based on institutions agreeing to participate in and to accept and profit by an honest and forthright assessment of institutional strengths and weaknesses. Further information about the Role and Value of Accreditation is available here:
Accreditation is an activity long accepted in the United States but unknown in many other countries that rely on governmental supervision and control of educational institutions. The record of accomplishment and outstanding success in the education of Americans can be traced in large part to the reluctance of the United States to impose governmental restrictions on institutions of postsecondary education, and to the success of the voluntary American system of accreditation in promoting quality without inhibiting innovation. The high proportion of Americans benefiting from higher education, the reputation of universities in the United States for both fundamental and applied research, and the wide-spread availability of professional services in the United States all testify to postsecondary education of high quality, and to the success of the accreditation system which the institutions and professions of the United States have devised to promote that quality.
The Value of Accreditation, developed by regional, national and programmatic accrediting organizations and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, is available here.
In the United States, accreditation is the primary process for assuring and improving the quality of higher education institutions. Accreditation of nearly 3,000 colleges and universities is carried out through a process known as ‘regional accreditation’: seven commissions operate in six geographic regions of the country through nongovernmental, non-profit voluntary associations. Accreditation is a self-regulatory, peer review process based on rigorous standards. Colleges and universities are judged based on self-evaluations analyzing how well they meet these standards, in light of their mission. Following a review by a team of peers, accrediting commissions determine the accreditation status of the institution and use a variety of means to ensure follow-up as appropriate and further evaluation in the case of substantive change on the part of the institution.
Regional accreditation oversees the quality of research universities; community colleges; liberal arts colleges; state colleges; religiously affiliated institutions; special-purpose institutions in the arts, sciences, and professional fields; military academies; historically black and Hispanic-serving institutions; and tribal colleges. Regionally accredited institutions are public and private, for-profit and not-for-profit, secular and religious, urban and rural, large and small, old and new, traditional and non-traditional. Collectively, they enroll over 17 million students in programs ranging from associate through doctoral level degrees. The quality of these colleges and universities – and the talent they have contributed to develop regional accreditation over the decades – means that regional accreditation is highly regarded around the world. In the United States, each of the regional commissions is recognized by the United States Secretary of Education and by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.
Regional accreditation is overseen by a professional staff for each commission, totaling slightly over 100 full-time employees nationally. Annually the work of accreditation is carried out by approximately 3,500 volunteers who serve on visiting teams and on the commissions. These volunteers include college and university presidents, academic officers, faculty, and campus experts in finance, student services and library/technology. At least one of every seven Commissioners is a public member.
Regional accreditation traces its roots to 1885. Today’s enterprise is based on decades of experience and refinement, both leading and reflecting the development of American higher education. Today’s standards go beyond inputs and processes – for example, do students have access to learning resources and are they using them? – to focus increasingly on outcomes: How well are students gaining skills of finding, evaluating, and using information? Over the past decade, regional accreditation commissions have been leaders in helping colleges and universities develop trustworthy and useful ways to understand what and how their students are learning and use the results for improvement.
Accreditation of our country’s large, diverse, and responsive system of higher education is strengthened by its regional nature. Regional associations keep their commissions close to the conditions, needs, and challenges of higher education in various parts of the country. Because accreditation is a process of self-regulation, participation by the membership strengthens the process. Thus, the greater opportunity for involvement offered through smaller-unit regional accrediting organizations builds understanding and commitment among college and university membership. Multiple approaches to common problems strengthen regional accreditation through cross-fertilization among the commissions.
The regions of regional accreditation are tied together in several ways to form a coordinated system. The executives and commission chairs – known collectively as C-RAC [the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions]– meet regularly. C-RAC has developed common statements, policies, and training materials in areas such as distance learning and assessment of student learning outcomes. Biennially, the professional staffs of all commissions meet to share good practice and plan for the future. Further, the sharing of volunteers inter-regionally as team members and team chairs, and the mobility of presidents, provosts, and faculty members ensures that common understandings develop and are applied. The effectiveness of these efforts is demonstrated by the ease with which students transfer and pursue higher degrees in regions beyond their own, and the common acceptance of ‘regional accreditation’ as a mark of quality by employers and the public.
American higher education is known for its diversity. The Economist’s 2005 global survey of higher education praised the American system, noting “A sophisticated economy needs a wide variety of universities pursuing a wide variety of missions [and] the more that the state’s role contracts, the more educational variety will flourish.” Regional accreditation has provided the conditions and framework under which diversity – and quality – have flourished.
In order to be eligible to become accredited, an applicant institution must demonstrate that it meets the Requirements of Affiliation. An institution of higher education may be said to be affiliated with the Commission only after it has achieved candidacy (pre-accreditation) or accredited status.
The length of time from candidacy to accreditation depends on a number of factors, including how long the institution has been in operation and its compliance with the Requirements of Affiliation. Once candidacy is achieved, an institution must progress to accreditation within five years. Colleges and universities seeking to affiliate with the Commission should review the following documents:
To view regional accrediting commission, click here.
Effective July 1, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education passed regulation declaring that “regional” accrediting agencies could expand their scope by accrediting institutions outside of their traditional region.
The New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) has adopted a formal process to consider applications for accreditation from institutions currently accredited by another federally recognized institutional accreditation agency. To transition to NECHE accreditation, the institution must provide evidence that: 1) it is in good standing with its current accreditation agency, 2) it is financially stable; and 3) it meets NECHE’s Standards for Accreditation and Requirements of Affiliation. The process ensures that institutions will be able to engage in an ongoing relationship with the Commission focused on public accountability and institutional improvement.
Free-standing institutions abroad interested in exploring U.S. accreditation are advised to work closely with Commission staff. NECHE’s criteria for consideration include the following requirements, among others: that the institution be American-style, that it be independent (non-governmental), that academic programs and degrees are comparable to those offered in the U.S.; that the institution has a governing board including representation of the public interest; and that administration, faculty and professional staff collectively have significant experience in American higher education.
A complete set of criteria is found in the following documents: