Higher education accreditation in the United States is a peer review process coordinated by accreditation commissions and member institutions. It was first undertaken in the late 19th century by cooperating educational institutions. The federal government began to play a limited role in higher education accreditation in 1952 with reauthorization of the GI Bill for Korean War veterans. The original GI Bill legislation had stimulated establishment of new colleges and universities to accommodate the influx of new students; but some of these new institutions were of dubious quality. The 1952 legislation designated the existing peer review process as the basis for measuring institutional quality; GI Bill eligibility was limited to students enrolled at accredited institutions included on a list of federally recognized accredited institutions published by the U.S. Commissioner of Education.
The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) (a non-governmental organization) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education and provide guidelines as well as resources and relevant data regarding these accreditors. Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor CHEA accredit individual institutions.
With the creation of the U.S. Department of Education and under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, the U.S. Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary has determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit. There are regional and national accrediting agencies, both of which are accountable to the Department of Education. Regional bodies have more oversight and accredit institutions in a particular region of the country. National bodies have less oversight in their policy and commonly accredit institutions across the country, and sometimes beyond it. Within American higher education, the former are considered more reputable.
Historically, most educational accreditation activity in the United States has been overseen by a set of six regional accrediting agencies that were established in the late 19th and early 20th century to foster better articulation between secondary schools and higher education institutions, particularly to help colleges and universities evaluate prospective students. These regional accreditation agencies are membership organizations of educational institutions in their respective geographic regions. Initially the main focus of the organizations was on accreditation of secondary schools and establishment of uniform college entrance requirements. Accreditation of colleges and universities followed later.
Regional accreditation of higher education applies to entire institutions, rather than specific programs within an institution. The higher education institutions holding regional accreditation are predominantly academically oriented, non-profit institutions.
There are 52 recognized national accrediting bodies. National accreditors get their name from their common policy of accrediting schools nationwide or even worldwide. Requirements for accreditation vary with each national accreditor according to their specialty. In general terms, the national accreditors accredit post-secondary programs that are vocational, technical and career in nature. Some of these programs offer degrees and some only certificates.
Five of these bodies are listed by the Department of Education as general in nature and national in scope. These are:
- Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- United States Distance Learning Division (USDLA)
National accreditation compared to regional accreditation
Regionally accredited schools are predominantly academically oriented, non-profit institutions. Nationally accredited schools are predominantly for-profit and offer vocational, career or technical programs. Within the American higher education system, critics note that national accrediting bodies (though not necessarily all nationally-accredited schools) have much lower standards than regional bodies, and consider them disreputable for this reason.
Generally, regionally accredited colleges have general policies against accepting any credits from nationally accredited schools, others are reluctant to because regional schools feel that national schools' academic standards are lower than their own or they are unfamiliar with the particular school. It is important to note that both types of accreditation are legitimate and recognized by the Department of Education. However, there have been lawsuits regarding nationally accredited schools who led prospective students to believe that they would have no problem transferring their credits to regionally accredited schools.
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