A History of Higher Education Accreditation


Updated February 16, 2023

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Accreditation is an important sign of academic quality. Learn about the history of the college accreditation system and the future of accreditation.

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Are you ready to discover your college program?

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Considering a college degree? You've probably been warned to check the school's accreditation status.

Accreditation is an important marker of academic quality. But how did today's complex accreditation system evolve — and how will it change in the future?

In its early years, accreditation focused on college admission standards. Starting in the late 19th century, colleges and universities worked together to recognize high schools that met admission requirements.

Soon, accreditors began evaluating colleges. New accrediting bodies emerged to focus on technical education and specialized programs.

From the beginning, higher education accreditation prioritized institutional effectiveness and academic excellence. The history of college accreditation shows how today's system evolved over time — and how accreditation may continue to change.

What Is Higher Education Accreditation?

Higher education accreditation certifies institutions and programs that meet high standards for educating students.

Schools and individual programs can voluntarily pursue accreditation from different accrediting bodies. These independent, nonprofit accreditors evaluate schools and programs to grant accreditation.

Historically, accreditors fell into three categories:

  • Regional accreditors
  • National accreditors
  • Specialized or programmatic accreditors

Regional Accreditation

The first regional accrediting agency dates back to 1885. Initially, colleges joined together to create accrediting bodies. These early accrediting organizations evaluated secondary schools to ensure they met college admission standards.

By the early 20th century, accrediting agencies also evaluated colleges. For example, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools was formed in 1887. Before 1919, the association evaluated secondary schools.

In 1919, the association formed a new commission — the Middle States Commission on Higher Education — to evaluate colleges.

At first, the accreditation process certified colleges that met the accrediting body's membership standards.

What standards did colleges need to meet? Early accrediting agencies looked at factors like the number of faculty, program length, and admission requirements.

Timeline of Regional Accrediting Agencies

Between 1885 and 1917, five accrediting agencies began to evaluate colleges in different regions of the U.S. In 1924, California and Hawaii broke off from NWCCU to form WSCUC.

The following six regional accrediting agencies still operate today:

In their early years, regional accrediting agencies only evaluated four-year colleges and universities.

In the mid-20th century, these agencies expanded their scope to include community colleges, technical schools, and teacher training schools. In 1962, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) split from WSCUC to focus on two-year and technical colleges, for example.

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National Accreditation

National accrediting agencies formed in the early 20th century, around the time regional accreditors began evaluating colleges.

While regional accrediting commissions only evaluated four-year institutions, national accrediting agencies focused on technical and religious education. They also accredited schools specializing in fields like art, dance, music, and theater.

Like regional accreditation, schools could voluntarily choose to pursue accreditation through national accrediting commissions. Historically, these national accrediting agencies evaluated private, technical, and for-profit schools.

Timeline of National Accrediting Agencies

In the early 20th century, national accrediting agencies began evaluating technical colleges, religious institutions, and other schools that fell outside the reach of regional accreditors. These organizations operated nationally and were not restricted to a particular region.

For example, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission was formed in 1926 as the National Home Study Council to evaluate correspondence programs.

Here are some national accrediting agencies that continue to operate today:

1912 Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)*

1918 Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS)

1924 National Association of Schools of Music (NASM)

1926 Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)

1944 National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD)

1947 Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation (ABHE)

1964 Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)

1965 Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)

1969 National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCAS)

1971 Council on Occupational Education (COE)

1974 Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)

1979 Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS)

2009 Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies (AIJS)

*Not currently recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education to grant accreditation

Did You Know...

National and regional accrediting bodies both evaluate entire institutions. This process is known as institutional accreditation.

Specialized Accreditation

While regional accrediting agencies were formed to standardize admission requirements, specialized accrediting agencies focused more on graduation standards.

These specialized accrediting agencies, also called programmatic accreditors, emphasized higher education training in a specific discipline or career.

For example, the American Medical Association created medical school standards for the first time in 1905. Other professional associations, such as the American Bar Association, began evaluating educational programs in the early 20th century.

Only programs that met the field's standards for training professionals earned accreditation.

Timeline of Specialized Accrediting Agencies

Specialized accreditation grew from professional associations that partnered with colleges to set standards for educating learners.

Today, there are dozens of programmatic accreditors. Here are some of the earliest ones to form in the U.S.:

*Not currently recognized by CHEA or the Department of Education to grant accreditation

Many programs pursue accreditation from specialized bodies, including those in nursing, counseling, allied health, interior design, and library science.

How Were Accreditation Standards Established?

The standards that educational institutions had to meet to earn accreditation shifted over time.

In its early years, MSCHE sent questionnaires to accredited schools. These forms evolved to ask schools for quantitative and qualitative data about the institution. Accredited schools would also participate in inspection visits.

Accreditors might deny accreditation for reasons like low admission standards, misuse of college funds, or poorly trained faculty.

Regional accrediting bodies instituted regular reports and inspections starting in the 1950s. They adopted a 10-year cycle in which accredited colleges had to undergo inspection every decade to maintain their accreditation status.

While regional accreditation began as an agreement between schools to standardize their admission and graduation standards, accreditation changed in the mid-20th century when the federal government began recognizing accrediting agencies.

How Were Accrediting Agencies Evaluated?

Initially, accrediting agencies had little oversight. That changed in the early 1950s, though, when the federal government became more involved in higher education accreditation.

In the wake of World War II, the GI Bill® sent around 8 million veterans to college.

At the time, the federal government had no way to evaluate which colleges would qualify for GI Bill support. As a result, accreditation became an important way to measure quality and determine eligibility for federal financial aid.

In 1952, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) began recognizing accrediting agencies. Originally, the approval process only affected veterans using the GI Bill.

But the Higher Education Act of 1965 expanded federal financial aid beyond veterans. Once again, only students attending institutions accredited by approved accrediting bodies qualified for financial aid.

ED created a list of approved accrediting bodies in the 1950s.

Around the same time, the regional accrediting bodies began working together to set standards for accrediting agencies. By the 1990s, this consortium evolved into the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

CHEA, like ED, approves accrediting agencies. A board of 20 members, which includes college presidents and accreditation specialists, governs CHEA.

Today, many accreditors, including the six regional accrediting agencies listed above, are recognized by both CHEA and ED.

Did You Know...

Altogether, CHEA and the Department of Education recognize nearly 100 national, regional, and programmatic accrediting agencies as of January 2023.

The Federal Government and Accreditation

Although the federal government does not directly accredit colleges and universities, it sets standards for accrediting agencies.

In 1992, for example, Congress passed amendments to the Higher Education Act that required accrediting agencies to apply specific oversight methods. The act encouraged accreditors to evaluate recruitment practices, program lengths, and how the school's mission aligned with student achievement.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 included additional suggestions for accrediting agencies, such as looking at distance education programs and evaluating institutional transparency.

For most of the history of higher education accreditation, accrediting bodies created their own standards — and colleges voluntarily participated in this process. By approving accrediting agencies, the federal government created external standards that accreditors needed to meet as well.

Like accreditation itself, ED approval remains voluntary. Accreditors can choose not to pursue ED approval. That said, schools not accredited by an ED-approved agency will not qualify for federal financial aid.

The Future of Accreditation

Accreditation has changed dramatically since the late 19th century.

In the beginning, accrediting bodies focused on secondary schools. By today's standards, accreditation involved little oversight, with accrediting bodies setting their own standards as they saw fit.

Today, accreditation involves a rigorous evaluation that repeats cyclically. Accrediting bodies must also undergo review from ED and CHEA.

While the process remains voluntary, institutions and students stand to benefit from accreditation. Schools and programs have a strong incentive to pursue accreditation from an ED- or CHEA-approved accreditor.

Students also have strong incentives to earn an accredited degree. Accreditation provides external recognition of the degree's value, which means you can qualify for financial aid, your credits will more likely transfer, and employers will more likely recognize your degree.

Nevertheless, institutional accreditation will soon look different. Before 2020, regional accrediting bodies operated only in specific states. This meant that colleges had only one regional accreditation option based on their location.

But since July 2020, location no longer matters for accreditation, per a new ED rule. Colleges can now apply to any regional accreditor, and regional accrediting bodies can operate nationally.

What does this mean exactly? Basically, there's no longer any distinction between regional and national accreditation — CHEA and ED now call the process "institutional accreditation."

How this change will affect students remains to be seen. What we do know is that ED implemented the rule to increase competition and encourage accreditors to set high standards.

In the future, the value of an accredited degree may be even higher than it is today.

Learn More About Accreditation

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