What Is the Goal of Accreditation Agencies?


Published February 22, 2023

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Accreditation recognizes high-quality schools and programs. Learn about the goal of accrediting agencies, how they operate, and the accreditation process.

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Accreditation agencies determine whether schools and academic programs meet high standards. And these agencies work hard: During the 2018-2019 school year, U.S. higher education accrediting bodies granted initial accreditation to 880 schools and programs.

They also renewed the accreditation of 2,908 schools and programs, according to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Accreditation plays an important role in education. Attending an accredited school can shape your future. Eligibility for federal grants, transfer credits, and job opportunities can depend on whether your school is accredited.

Still, the agencies behind accreditation can seem mysterious to prospective and current students. What is the goal of accreditation agencies? And how do they accomplish this goal?

How Does School Accreditation Work?

Dozens of accreditation agencies operate in the U.S., specializing in different types of accreditation.

Institutional accreditors evaluate entire schools, whereas programmatic accreditors review individual academic programs. Additionally, many accreditors evaluate K-12 schools.

All of these accrediting agencies set standards so they can assess educational institutions and programs. Ultimately, accreditors prioritize academic quality.

"Accreditation focuses on the student experience," explained George Edwards, chief accreditation officer at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which accredits 1,500 K-12 schools.

At all levels, accreditors ensure that students receive a quality education from an authoritative school or program. And they achieve this goal through a rigorous, independent review.

"The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities [(NWCCU)] accredits institutions of higher education by applying evidence-informed standards and processes to support continuous improvements and promote student achievement and success," said Sonny Ramaswamy, Ph.D., president of the regional accrediting agency NWCCU.

Those two goals — continuous improvement and student achievement — drive institutional, programmatic, and K-12 accreditation agencies.

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What Is the Goal of Institutional Accreditors?

Historically, institutional accreditors fell into two categories: regional accreditors, which accredit more traditional colleges and universities, and national accreditors, which primarily assess faith-related and vocational schools.

Despite the elimination of geographic restrictions for regional accreditors in 2020, regional accreditation remains the gold standard for many colleges.

Why? Compared to national accreditors, regional accreditors use a more stringent process to measure student learning outcomes and faculty qualifications. They also set higher institutional benchmarks.

But how do regional accreditors accomplish these goals exactly?

"Educational quality, stability, and sustainability are assessed by peer evaluators against standards, eligibility requirements, and policies," explained Ramaswamy.

NWCCU, for example, trains peer evaluators to assess schools on their institutional finances, student support, and strategic planning. Like other regional accreditors, NWCCU regularly monitors accredited schools to ensure they continue to meet standards.

When it comes to national accrediting agencies, faith-related accreditors evaluate religious instruction and faith-based missions, while career-related accreditors look at vocational training and graduate outcomes.

Whether regional or national, institutional accreditors look at the health of the entire institution, often investigating academic quality along with the school's overall mission, academic governance, and financial stability.

Institutional accreditation determines whether students qualify for federal financial aid as well. Degree-seekers at unaccredited schools can't use federal loans or programs like the Pell Grant.

The U.S. Department of Education determines which institutional accreditors apply rigorous enough standards to qualify for federal aid.

What Is the Goal of Programmatic Accreditors?

Also called specialized accreditation, programmatic accreditation entails the assessment of individual academic programs. These agencies typically accredit programs in professional disciplines like nursing and business.

For example, the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs evaluates business schools and MBA programs, while the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) evaluates teacher training programs.

"When an institution or specialized program is accredited, it has demonstrated that it meets standards by organizations representing the academic community, professionals, and other stakeholders," said Matt Vanover, vice president for communications and government affairs at CAEP.

Programmatic accreditors have different goals than institutional accreditors. Rather than assessing institutional finances and overall educational quality, these agencies focus on whether programs prepare graduates for careers in their chosen fields.

That's why programmatic accreditors only exist for certain disciplines. Most humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences programs do not have specialized accreditors. Instead, institutional accreditation covers these majors.

In contrast, fields like teaching, counseling, social work, and business have programmatic accreditors to ensure that graduates have the necessary skills to work in their fields.

Each programmatic accreditor develops quality standards for its discipline.

"CAEP standards are outcome-based and include outcomes for K-12 learners, which is an important part of our mission," explained Vanover.

CAEP affirms that accredited programs effectively prepare educators by linking teacher accreditation with graduate performance.

Because programmatic accreditation emphasizes career readiness, these agencies only grant accreditation to programs that demonstrate positive professional records for graduates.

What Is the Goal of K-12 Accreditors?

At the K-12 level, accreditors evaluate elementary, middle, and high schools. As with higher education accreditation, K-12 accreditation emphasizes quality assurance and continuous improvement.

"Our standards are aspirational and challenge [K-12] schools to continuously improve in an effort to meet the standards," said Edwards. "The accreditation process engages school communities in a process based on the concept of a growth mindset."

NEASC works with member institutions and educational experts to set research-based standards that draw on best practices. Peer review teams then assess whether schools meet standards and offer feedback for improvement.

"Schools that are accredited are working hard to continuously improve," said Edwards, adding that "colleges value K-12 accreditation as a factor in the admissions process."

Initially, K-12 accreditation began to ensure that high school students met college readiness standards. Today, these accreditors develop standards to help schools offer the best education possible for young learners.

How Does the Accreditation Process Work?

Accreditation requires an intensive process that can take years.

Even after granting accreditation, accrediting bodies continue to monitor schools and programs. The accreditation process ensures that institutions and programs continue to meet standards and improve.

Stages of Accreditation

  1. 1
    Establish eligibility
  2. 2
    Institutional or program self-study
  3. 3
    On-site peer evaluator visits
  1. 4
    Comprehensive accreditation report
  2. 5
    Final decisions and appeal process
  3. 6
    Continuous monitoring

Before undergoing an accreditation review, schools and programs must meet eligibility requirements. Regional accreditors require an autonomous governance structure to maintain academic integrity, faculty with appropriate qualifications, and, in many cases, general education requirements that align with the school's mission.

National accreditors set their own standards. The Association for Biblical Higher Education, for example, ensures that four-year institutions require students to take 30 credits of biblical or theological studies.

Accreditors regularly evaluate their standards. CAEP collects data and reviews its performance as an accreditor to fine-tune its standards every seven years.

After establishing eligibility, institutions and programs complete a self-study. Accreditors then use the self-study to conduct on-site peer evaluations.

At the conclusion of these steps — which can take months or even years — the peer evaluators create a comprehensive report. A commission at the accrediting body reviews this report and decides whether to grant accreditation.

Once schools or programs receive accreditation, they must maintain their status. Some accreditors require annual reports, information on curriculum changes, student data, and other documentation on performance.

With thousands of schools and programs renewing their accreditation annually, the process is time- and labor-intensive.

What Accreditation Means for Students

The accreditation process focuses on the student experience and continuous improvement. And accreditors play a key role in evaluating schools and programs.

So what exactly do students need to know about accreditation agencies?

"Students should know that the quality of their education from an accredited institution is assured," said Ramaswamy, "and they can use the same to seek gainful employment or advanced education anywhere in the United States or overseas."

Students should also understand that accreditation is a voluntary process: Schools and programs can decide whether to pursue accreditation or opt out.

"Providers seek review from accreditors to provide public assurance of quality and a commitment to continuous improvement," explained Vanover.

While the accreditation process is complex, degree-seekers can rest assured that accreditation agencies are committed to ensuring that colleges, K-12 schools, and academic programs provide quality education.

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