Accreditation is the quality-assurance process for colleges and universities. The two main types are regional and national, and schools often receive one or both types of accreditation. Of the two, regional accreditation is more highly valued by institutions and degree-holders. Graduating students’ degrees may be worth more to employers when issued by a regionally accredited school and transferring students will often find they only receive credit for courses taken at a regionally accredited institution. Continue reading to learn more about regional accreditation, its importance and how it’s awarded.
Regional accreditation has existed in the United States for over a century. The process is largely based on peer-review, which means that representatives from regionally accredited schools help determine if other schools meet the quality requirements needed in order to become accredited.
Marissa Cope, an Accreditation Analyst from Webster University, answers some frequently asked questions about the process.
In the United States there are seven regional accrediting organizations (based on geographic region) whose ultimate purpose is to ensure that institutions of higher education are meeting pre-defined criteria or standards for quality. These accrediting bodies serve as external oversight for institutional programs, services, policies and processes.
Note from AccreditedSchoolsOnline.org: The seven organizations referenced above make up the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC). In addition to these organizations, there are four additional regional accrediting agencies that focus on vocational and community colleges.
Nationally accredited colleges are often for-profit and/or career or vocational-focused institutions; they are not based on a specific geographical region, but instead focus on a more specific type of school or education. These accreditation agencies are considered by some to have less stringent criteria or standards for accreditation than the regional organizations.
Regional accreditation is important for several reasons, but a primary one is that students at schools without accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education cannot receive federal financial aid.
Employers often require degrees from regionally-accredited institutions as part of job requirements and graduate programs may require baccalaureate [bachelor’s] degrees from regionally-accredited institutions as part of the admissions process. Additionally, transfer credits from regionally-accredited institutions will most likely be accepted at other regionally-accredited institutions, which may not be the case for credits from nationally-accredited institutions.
The U.S. Department of Education has a website that students can use to determine which institutions are accredited by which organization(s). Additionally, students can search the website of the regional accrediting organization(s) for the school(s) in which they are interested to see whether or not each institution has regional accreditation and if they are under any type of monitoring by the organization.
Institutional accreditation applies the same criteria or standards across the entire institution, including all academic programs, and the institution is evaluated as a whole. Programs with specialized accreditation are granted approval by an external organization associated with the discipline and have discipline-specific criteria the program must meet. Common programs with specialized accreditation include business, education, engineering and nursing.
A typical requirement for specialized/programmatic accreditation is that the institution offering the program is regionally accredited.
Each region of the United States has a specific agency that determines whether schools and programs within its area can be accredited. The US Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education (DOE-OPE) does not control the actual accreditation process. Instead, the OPE, together with non-profit Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), monitor the different regional accrediting agencies.
Each regional accreditation agency has its own standards for awarding accreditation, but these standards tend to be similar between agencies. Accreditation is a sign that a school will give students a thorough education and useful degrees, so knowing how to identify which schools are regionally accredited is vital for choosing a successful school.
Continue reading to see the current regional accreditation agencies recognized by the US Department of Education, the states they serve and the standards they follow.
The following seven agencies make up the C-RAC and are the primary regional accreditation agencies in the US.
Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming
The Higher Learning Commission’s criteria emphasizes an accredited school’s commitment to continued improvement. Additionally, the institution must be able to demonstrate dedication to equality, diversity and public good.
The HLC offers three different tracks to accreditation with varying processes. Initial accreditation, regardless of the track, can last from five to nine years. Institutions, once they are granted candidacy, undergo multiple hearings and on-site reviews before they are awarded accreditation. Schools must also fulfill all of the HLC’s criteria for accreditation in order to become accredited. Reaccreditation is on a ten- or eight-year cycle depending on the accreditation track.
In order for an institution to become accredited with the HLC, its online and distance programs must have the same quality and goals as its on-campus programs.
Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Washington D.C., U.S. Virgin Islands
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s criteria for accreditation emphasizes financial and operational transparency, meaning that the public needs to have access to information about how the institution functions. In order to be considered for accreditation, the institutions must provide rigorous curriculum for all students regardless of the type of program or course. Instructors must be held to a high standard and have resources and opportunities available for professional development.
After the institution conducts a self-evaluation and accreditation candidacy is granted, the Commission reviews the self-evaluation and evaluations compiled during Commission visits to the campus and other materials. The Commission then grants accreditation (with or without required follow-up to demonstrate changes or improvements) or denies accreditation. Institutions denied accreditation or denied candidacy for accreditation must wait two to five years before they may reapply.
Online programs must be held to the same high standard as on-campus programs in order to be included in the institution’s accreditation. However, online programs are not necessarily included in a school’s accreditation.
Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont
The New England Associate of Schools and Colleges’ accreditation standards focus on a school’s ability to fulfill its own self-determined purpose or mission. The purpose must be considered appropriate by the NEASC for a higher education institution. Institutions which don’t meet the NEASC’s standards are not necessarily disqualified from accreditation, but they must demonstrate that an exception to the standards is justified.
Before they begin the application process, schools must fulfill affiliation requirements, a set of standards separate from — but similar to — the accreditation standards. These requirements primarily involve the institution’s ability to award degrees only when the students have earned them and to perform other activities essential to its function as a school. After meeting these affiliation requirements and after the Commission has determined the school is eligible, institutions may apply for candidacy status. Once granted, they can begin the actual process of applying for accreditation.
Typically, the Commission decides to grant or deny accreditation after five years of candidacy. All standards must be met in some shape or form for an institution to become accredited.
In order for an institution with an online program to gain accreditation, it must demonstrate that it can sustain the online program and must be able to produce results (in the form of graduates) equivalent to on-campus programs. Distance education students must also be able to easily interact with their instructors. Additionally, measures must be taken to assure that the student completing the online courses is the same student that receives the credit (meaning a student can’t have a friend complete the online coursework for them).
Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington
The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities’ criteria for accreditation places significant emphasis on peer review and comparison. This means that NCCU actively compares applicant schools to fully accredited schools in order to decide if the new school qualifies for accreditation. Schools are also judged on their mission statements or core values and how effectively they achieve those goals in the classroom, campus and community.
The initial application process with the NCCU lasts up to three years, after which qualifying schools may become candidates for accreditation. Candidacy lasts up to five more years, after which a final accreditation decision is made. The NCCU may request that the candidate school remain in the candidacy stage for further review, request more information about a specific topic, require a change be made or award accreditation.
NCCU’s accreditation process includes an extensive review of any online or distance programs. Candidate schools’ programs are considered as part of their application and can’t be considered separately. Online programs must be held to the same standards as on-campus programs and online students must be able to access all the resources they need to succeed in their courses.
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges’ standards for accreditation focus on integrity and administrative processes in addition to academic success. Multiple criteria that schools constantly work to improve their programs, services and student achievement.
Prior to submitting applications for accreditation to SACSCOC, institutions must send representatives to multiple workshops. Visits from the Commission to the applicant school determine if the school can move to the candidacy stage and, eventually, to accreditation. The final decision is made on a case-by-case basis by the Board of the SACSCOC.
The SACSCOC has extensive requirements for accrediting schools with online programs. Most importantly, the Commission requires that schools assure student achievement and satisfaction are equal between on-campus and online courses. Schools must also have a reasonable method for determining how credits for online courses are earned and for making sure credits earned online are functionally equal to those earned on-campus.
California, Hawai’i, American territories such as Guam and American Samoa
The WASC Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges’ criteria focuses on a school’s ability to create and fulfil its own mission statement. The criteria also emphasizes the general integrity of the school, from its financial office to its academics.
Before an institution can be considered for accreditation or candidacy for accreditation, it must first prove its eligibility. This step focuses on the school’s ability to perform the basic duties of a school and to award degrees. If eligibility is demonstrated in a way that satisfies the Commission, the school may become a candidate for accreditation. After extensive review, the school is either awarded accreditation or denied; the WASC-ACCJC does not award varying portions or degrees of accreditation.
The Commission requires that online programs be substantially equivalent to on-campus programs. The accreditation criteria specifically emphasize that schools must be just as dedicated to the success of online students as they are to traditional students.
California, Hawai’i, American territories such as Guam and American Samoa
Many of WASC’s standards and core values for accreditation ask, in one way or another, that schools be dedicated to constantly improving their academic programs and teaching methods. Additionally, a component of WASC’s mission, and broadly speaking its accreditation standards, involve schools serving the public good either through its graduates or direct involvement in the community.
After a school proves it’s eligible to apply for accreditation, the school can apply for candidacy. After no more than five years of candidacy, the school may receive initial accreditation. If the school does not reach initial accreditation within five years, it may have to begin the process over at the eligibility stage. There are no varying amounts of accreditation available with WASC: an institution is either accredited or it's not.
The WASC does not award partial accreditation, meaning that either the entire institution and all of its programs are accredited or none are. As a result, online programs have no separate accreditation process and are instead accredited along with the entire school.
These agencies provide regional accreditation in some states for technical, vocational and community colleges.
Prior to even submitting a request for accreditation, the institution must be approved by the New York State Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education to award degrees. Additionally, the school must have graduated enough students to prove it is fulfilling its mission statement. In order to receive accreditation, the school must also adequately encourage student achievement and success, award course credit only when the student earned it, have experienced and expert faculty and fulfill other criteria focused on having transparent and equitable practices.
Schools must fulfill some basic criteria, outlined above, and demonstrate that they are able to function as an educational facility before they can apply for accreditation. Once the application has been accepted, the school’s application advances to stages involving thorough visits from the Board and subsequent reports.
The Board of Regents will ultimately make one of four decisions. The first is full accreditation without conditions, meaning that the school met all requirements completely. The second, accreditation with conditions, indicates that the school mostly met the requirements and has two years to take steps towards fulfilling the accreditation criteria completely. Schools granted a probationary accreditation have temporary accreditation during two years and must take significant changes in order to regain accreditation. Institutions are denied accreditation if the Board decides they can’t meet minimum standards within two years.
For an online program to be accredited, the program must fulfill the same mission or goal as the institution as a whole. Students completing online courses must also receive the same quality of education as students taking traditional courses.
The Oklahoma Board of Career and Technology Education’s accreditation standards focus on assuring a graduate will be prepared for the workforce or continued education. Additionally, programs should demonstrate how they benefit the state of Oklahoma as part of the accreditation process.
The accreditation process itself lasts approximately one year, during which the program is considered an accreditation candidate. After a year, the board grants full accreditation or probationary accreditation. Probationary accreditation means that the program doesn’t fulfill the requirements for accreditation and has one year to fix these issues; if the issues aren’t fixed, the program completely loses its accreditation. Upon receiving full accreditation from the Oklahoma Board of Career and Technology Education, programs must go through the accreditation process again at least once every five years.
The Oklahoma Board of Career and Technology Education’s accreditation standards for online programs are very similar to those used with onsite programs. Accreditation for online programs specifically focuses on whether the programs adequately prepare students for military enlistment, careers or continued education as well as how effective the support system provided by the school is for online students.
The Pennsylvania State Board of Vocational Education focuses on market needs with regards to which programs they accredit. In order to become accredited, programs must be at least one year old. Programs that don’t meet one standard may still receive accreditation.
The State Board approves a program before the program can apply for accreditation. Once the program has been approved and enters the accreditation process, the program submits a self-evaluation and hosts Board members onsite for multiple days. After this, the Board holds hearings during which accreditation is granted or denied. Programs may be granted a probationary accreditation, meaning that two standards were not met.
The Board has no separate criteria for online or distance programs, so in order to receive accreditation online programs must fulfill the same standards as on-campus programs.