The Different Types of Accreditation
Over 100 years old, U.S. accreditation is a voluntary and recurrent evaluation process that assures and improves the quality of educational institutions and programs. It is carried out by nongovernmental, self-regulatory, and nonprofit accrediting agencies. Accreditors and institutions collaborate to set high standards for academics, student achievement, faculty, facilities, resources, administration, governance, and integrity.
Multiple organizations are involved in accreditation – the U.S. Department of Education, accrediting agencies, and organizations that approve accrediting agencies. The U.S. Secretary of Education, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognize quality accrediting agencies, which in turn recognize quality institutions and programs. (See the U.S. Secretary of Education’s list of Nationally Recognized Accrediting Agencies and The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.)
There are two main types of accreditation – institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation reviews educational institutions, while programmatic accreditation reviews specific programs within institutions. There are also two branches of institutional accreditation – regional and national.
Institutions can acquire regional, national, and/or programmatic accreditation. Many choose to acquire both regional and programmatic accreditation in order to doubly assure students and the public of the quality of education they offer.
Regional accreditation is the most highly regarded form of accreditation. Broadly speaking, it covers public and private, nonprofit and degree-granting, two- and four-year institutions. Eight regional accreditors, such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, focus on one of the six U.S. regions – West, Northwest, North, Middle, South, and New England. Altogether, regional accrediting agencies oversee nearly 3,000 institutions and assure quality education to over 17 million students across the United States. Such narrow focus within a region allows closer oversight and stricter accreditation standards than that of national accreditation.
Committee chairs, executives, staff, and volunteers regularly meet with other regional accreditors to discuss policies, practices, and plans. The inter-regional communication fosters a common understanding between regional accreditors as well as uniform quality of education across the nation and ease of student transfers between regions.
National Accreditation oversees specialized and nontraditional institutions nationwide like vocational colleges, technical colleges, religious colleges, and online universities. Unlike regional accreditation, national accreditation focuses not on a region of the United States, but the nation as a whole. Although national accreditation is generally well regarded, some regionally accredited institutions do not accept credits from nationally accredited institutions.
There are two branches of national accreditation – faith-related and career-related.
Faith-related accreditation generally covers nonprofit and degree-granting faith-based institutions. Four accrediting agencies, such as the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, accredit over 400 faith-based schools.
Career-related accreditation mostly accredits profit, non-degree-granting, and single-purpose career-based schools, including online colleges. Seven accrediting agencies, such as the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation, oversee over 3,500 career-based institutions.
Programmatic Accreditation oversees individual programs, departments, and schools within institutions nationwide. Some programmatic accrediting agencies also accredit specialized, free-standing institutions. Sixty-one recognized accrediting agencies and professional associations like the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation and the American Dental Association accredit over 19,400 programs in various fields – the arts, business, education training, law, engineering, social work, personal care services, and healthcare.
Though programmatic accreditation focuses on a single program, it is just as important and respected as regional accreditation. Many professional licensures – such as those in law, medicine, and education – require applicants to have completed specific program content. Programmatic accreditation ensures that students meet professional licensure requirements by reviewing the quality of curriculum and program content. Most accredited institutions choose to also accredit their programs to build up their quality of education. And many programmatic accrediting agencies only accredit programs from regionally or nationally accredited institutions.
U.S. Department of Education
New England Association of Schools and Colleges | Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
Council for Higher Education Accreditation
Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation