Specialized Accreditation: What It Is and How It Works

Updated November 8, 2022

Specialized accreditation can tell potential students the program meets or exceeds strict academic standards in the field.

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Navigating the value and importance of specialized accreditation

Attending college is a big commitment, both personally and financially, so how can students know that their education will be worth it? Before enrolling, students should make sure their program of choice is properly accredited. For those interested in a specific program, specialized accreditation can tell potential students the program meets or exceeds strict academic standards in the field. Learn about specialized accreditation entities, focusing on who they are and what they offer colleges and their students below.

Understanding Specialized Accreditation

  • What is specialized accreditation? Accreditation is a comprehensive process that assesses the overall faculty and curriculum quality of colleges and universities to ensure they are meeting academic standards and are preparing students to succeed in the future. Many universities elect to have some or all their individual schools and/or programs accredited by private bodies that specialize in those subject areas.
  • Why does specialized accreditation matter? When attending a school or program with proper accreditation, students can be confident that the provided curriculum will not only prepare them to enter and thrive in a professional environment, but also ensures that their education will be respected by future educators and employers. In addition, if a student wishes to transfer to a different college, their credits are more likely to be accepted if they were earned through an accredited school or program.
  • How do I know if a program has specialized accreditation? Programs will often list their accreditation on their websites. Students can also verify accreditation with the programs' specialized accrediting agency or by simply asking school officials.
  • What are some signs that a program is not accredited? In general, if a program seems too good to be true, it probably is. For example, if a program is advertising degree completion with little to no studying or time it's a good idea to look into specialized and other forms of accreditation. Students should also check accreditation if a program seems overly pricey.

Arts and Humanities Accreditation

The U.S. Department of Education has authorized several agencies to accredit programs in the arts and humanities. Each has its own criteria for determining the credibility and validity of programs within its governance. Explore four different accrediting agencies for this field below.

National Association of Schools of Art and Design

The NASAD grants accreditation to independent institutions of higher education that offer art and design courses. Founded in 1944, the NASAD currently accredits approximately 333 institutions. To become accredited by the NASAD, a degree-granting institution must meet several basic eligibility requirements, such as having previously graduated a class of students and demonstrating commitment to the evaluation of its organization and programs. The standards for accreditation set by the NASAD concern several institutional aspects: the purpose and mission of the school; its size and scope, including enrollment figures; financial resources; school administration; faculty and staff; libraries; and facilities and other resources. Specific guidelines are outlined for curriculum coverage within the scope of art and design, as well as for two-year, undergraduate and graduate programs, specific majors, and combined disciplines.

National Association of Schools of Music

The NASM has overseen the educational standards of schools offering music programs since 1924. It currently boasts a membership of approximately 644 institutions. The NASM uses peer review for determining eligibility for institutional membership and accreditation. It employs set expectations for the broad scope of undergraduate and graduate degree programs including music performance, composition, jazz studies, theater, and music education. Each is examined for relevance and difficulty of the coursework, degree requirements, admissions policies, and other factors. When evaluating a school for institutional membership, the NASM utilizes standards that are designed to “paint a picture” of the music department and its programs, and how it achieves its mission and goals.

National Association of Schools of Dance

The NASD was founded in 1981 to oversee undergraduate and graduate dance programs within the United States. There are currently 77 NASD-accredited member institutions. Dance schools go through a lengthy process of evaluation by the NASD's Commission on Accreditation during which they must present evidence of adherence to NASD standards. Additionally, prospective institutions are required to clearly articulate their artistic and educational goals, possess sound financial resources, maintain an administration, faculty and facilities ideally suited for their roles. Institutions must follow specific rules when developing their coursework and the structure of their programs of study.

National Association of Schools of Theater

Formed in 1965, the NAST practices accreditation procedures that focus on ensuring that theater programs in the U.S. train future performers using the best practices and resources available. The standards set by the NAST are like those followed by the other arts associations, with specifications that cover the unique qualities of theater programs. Faculty, support staff, and graduate teaching assistants must be competent and well qualified for work in theater. Similarly, an institution's library must provide sufficient print and electronic resources for research in theater and be widely accessible to students. Institutions seeking accreditation through the NAST must demonstrate that their programs contain all necessary components for the specific type of degree offered, from acting to stage management.

Education Training Accreditation

There are three education training accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education: the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education; the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education; and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council. All three institutions cover the accreditation of distance learning programs in teacher education.

Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education

First granted recognition from the U.S. Department of Education in 1995, the Montessori Accreditation Council provides trustworthy analysis of programs that instruct teachers on delivering the Montessori method to elementary and secondary school students. The Council's stated mission is to, “develop and uphold academic standards, serve as a point of contact for stakeholders and the public, and unite all accredited Montessori teacher education programs under one umbrella.” A prospective institution must complete a self-study, which serves as written documentation of its performance. This documentation, as well as information gathered during a site visit, is reviewed by MACTE staff members who prepare an analysis report for the accreditation committee. The committee then decides to grant or deny accreditation. Institutional qualities that the MACTE looks for include credentialed faculty, an appropriate program length, and a syllabus that covers the breadth of Montessori education.

National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education

The NCATE is an authorized agency for the accreditation of education programs for elementary and secondary school teachers. Since its founding in 1954, the goal of the Council has been to provide assurance to the public of the quality of teacher preparation in the U.S. Currently, the NCATE accredits 670 colleges of education. The standards established by the NCATE help to keep teacher education programs up-to-date and in a continuous state of improvement. The Council considers the following factors: curriculum that covers the knowledge and skills for successful teaching; access for students to practical, hands-on field experiences; exposure to diversity; assessment of programs; and quality and stability of resources and personnel. Acceptable objectives, standards and methods in each of these areas, from the measurement of a teacher candidate's ability to go out in the profession and teach to the level of education required of program faculty, are outlined by the NCATE.

Accreditation through the Teacher Education Accreditation Council

The TEAC gives merit and prestige to bachelor's and graduate degree holders preparing to teach grades K-12. The TEAC serves the educational community by building confidence in U.S. educational institutions, from small liberal arts schools to large universities, and by providing a method for accountability to the public. There are several submissions required for TEAC accreditation: a brief on the school's adherence to the TEAC standards; a survey of faculty and students; an audit and interview with the school's administration; and a full case analysis of all information gathered. As part of its process, TEAC evaluates evidence of learning among teacher candidates, the quality control system for the curriculum, and faculty commitment to program improvement.

Healthcare Education Accreditation

Professions in the healthcare field are wide-ranging – from traditional doctors and nurses to alternative medicine practitioners – and many of these have their own distinct accrediting agencies to protect the integrity of their professional training. In fact, there are more than a dozen organizations in the U.S. that accredit and approve health education programs, each with its own specific standards and rules. You can visit here for a complete list of these accrediting agencies.

The Liaison Committee on Medical Education

The Liaison Committee is a part of the American Medical Association and a nationally recognized organization that accredits medical programs leading to the M.D. degree. An institution seeking accreditation from the Liaison Committee must submit information in a database to be used as the basis for self-study. That information must detail the institution's educational program, faculty, resources, and other elements of the school, and must include the involvement of its students. Representatives from the LCME schedule and conduct an on-site visit to measure institutional compliance with set standards. A report is then submitted which is used to determine accreditation status. Accreditation standards include such elements as the structure and scope of the curriculum, pre-medical admissions requirements, and availability of student resources like health services and financial aid counseling.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education

The Commission is officially recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and is obliged to the public to improve nursing healthcare through the continuous regulation of nursing programs. An institution seeking accreditation is required to conduct a self-study assessment that evaluates its strengths and weaknesses, and details the measures the school intends to take for improvement. A peer evaluation team visits the program site to better understand how the institution meets the accreditation standards and to make note of any discrepancies in the self-study assessment. After the site visit, the program responds with additional information. The Commission then analyzes all documentation and a decision on accreditation rendered. Accredited institutions are thereafter periodically reviewed for continued adherence to Commission standards.

Paralegal Education Approval

The paralegal education approval process is meant to enhance the ability of paralegal students to complete their education fully prepared to start work in the legal profession. Schools and programs that contribute to the ability of paralegals to serve the needs of lawyers in diverse fields of legal specialization are good candidates for approval.

American Bar Association

In addition to approving and accrediting law schools offering programs that lead to the J.D degree, the American Bar Association (ABA) is also the authority for approving paralegal education programs. The Standing Committee on Paralegals and its Approval Commission are responsible for carrying out the accreditation process and upholding the standards developed by the ABA. The Committee has been operating with this mission for more than 30 years.

The Guidelines for the Approval of Paralegal Education Programs was developed by the ABA Standing Committee on Paralegals to exercise authority over the content, delivery, and administration of paralegal programs in the U.S. Key guideline requirements are designed to evaluate the following:

  • The purpose and procedures of the program or school;
  • the organization and administration;
  • the educational programs;
  • faculty;
  • admissions and student services;
  • library resources;
  • and on-campus facilities.

How schools gain approval from the ABA

To gain approval from the ABA, a school will submit an application that provides evidence of its readiness to start the approval process. Next, the institution completes a self-evaluation report that addresses the points laid out in the ABA Guidelines. The report is delivered to the Standing Committee for review. The school is contacted if more information is needed. A team of representatives then carries out an on-site evaluation of the program and institution. The results of the on-site evaluation and the self-evaluation report are reviewed by the Approval Commission, who submits a recommendation to the Standing Committee. The Standing Committee conducts its own analysis and submits its recommendation to the ABA's House of Delegates for a final decision.

Educational programs must develop both general and specialized knowledge and skills so that students can gain professional competence in paralegal practice. The programs must also plan for evaluating the effectiveness of the curriculum and implementing changes where needed.

Personal Care and Services Accreditation

The U.S. Department of Education has authorized accrediting agencies for education in specific areas of personal care and services, including funeral services, massage therapy, and cosmetology. These organizations accredit higher education programs that award postsecondary diplomas and certificates, as well as associate's and bachelor's degrees.

American Board of Funeral Service Education, Committee on Accreditation

Accreditation of college and university programs offering education in funeral services and mortuary science is granted through the American Board of Funeral Service Education Committee on Accreditation. The Board's established standards cover the administrative, logistical, sanitary, and ethical practices of the funeral service profession to ensure that individuals practicing in the field provide the highest quality service to the public. These standards apply to several institutional factors, such as a complete curriculum that includes clinical experiences and labs, and ensures that an institution's organization and administration fully support the programs it has established. Schools must train students to be active members of their community and concerned participants in the relationship between the profession and bereaved families. Further standards concern practical issues like finances, faculty member credentials, and the availability of facilities and library resources to support training.

The Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation

COMTA is an agency responsible for evaluating the quality of programs and educational institutions that teaching massage therapy, bodywork and skin care. Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Education has recognized the COMTA as an expert in setting and enforcing standards for safe and effective practice in these healthcare fields. The accreditation process is based largely on a self-study report, completed by the prospective institution, which evaluates several determined areas of operation for compliance and improvement. The institution's mission and objectives must be consistent and clearly defined. Curriculum and instruction must be designed to meet stated objectives and stay current with the expectations of the profession. The COMTA provides specific guidelines regarding structure and content of curriculum, and requires courses on basic business practices as well as medical terminology.

National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences

Since 1969, the NACCAS has overseen the practices and procedures of postsecondary schools and departments of cosmetology. Approximately 1,500 institutions are currently accredited. Standards employed by the NACCAS concern how a school sets the goals of its curriculum and assesses itself for improvement. Instructors hired by the institution are expected to meet state teaching requirements. Institutions must maintain adequate instructional space and technologies that facilitate learning, as well as student services such as orientation programs and procedures for handling student complaints.

Accreditation from any of the above-described agencies indicates that the educational performance of a school or program meets the expectations of an unbiased organization with a vested interested in quality education. It is an authoritative and reliable means of determining the school's dedication to serving the best interests of its students.

Community and Social Services Accreditation

The U.S. Department of Education has recognized several accrediting agencies for their authority to assess the credentials of schools and colleges in community and social services. This area includes educational institutions of theology, rabbinical studies, biblical studies, and pastoral studies. Also covered are English-as-a-second-language programs.

Other religious education accrediting authorities approved by the DOE include:

  • The Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools
  • The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc.
  • The Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools.

The Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation

In addition to upholding the values of their communities, religious education accrediting agencies help maintain and improve the curriculum and programs of colleges and universities offering religious degrees. The Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation (ABHE) focuses on accrediting programs that teach biblical ministry and leadership at the undergraduate level. The ABHE currently accredits approximately 200 postsecondary institutions in North America. The ABHE's Comprehensive Integrated Standards are designed to help determine whether a theological school may become accredited. Programmatic Accreditation Standards are used to analyze biblical education programs for institutions with a broader scope. These standards cover a wide range of subjects and include the following: institutional commitment to planning and course development that addresses student needs; truthful and transparent communication by the institution with the public; and specific requirements for the number of semester hours of the Bible/theology component of a degree program.

The Commission on English Language Program Accreditation

The goal of the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) is to provide a means for controlling the level of quality in the teaching and administration of English language programs. Founded in 1999, the CEA is the only nationally recognized accrediting agency for such programs in the U.S. and has expanded its mission to include foreign accreditation of schools as well. The established standards for granting or denying accreditation concern certain key aspects of a prospective school. For example, the curriculum must be consistent with the program's mission, have clear objectives and expected outcomes, and use instructional tools and methods that achieve stated objectives. Faculty members must have experience relevant to the teaching of their courses and must demonstrate a mastery of English. The length and structure of the program is expected to be appropriate for higher education.

Affiliation with a religious education accrediting authority is evidence that an institution is operating ethically and efficiently and is committed to providing appropriate coursework that leads to student success. Similarly, the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation accredits only those institutions that have proven the value of their programs and possess the resources to thrive and continue their operations into the future.

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