Institutional accreditation is an assurance that an institution of higher education meets a series of quality standards. Accreditation standards require institutions to demonstrate that they adhere to good practices in higher education. Furthermore, accrediting agencies should be recognized by organizations such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the US Department of Education. An accrediting agency without this recognition may be seen as an “accreditation mill,” an agency that offers to award accreditation to programs or institutions without the rigor and high standards of the recognized accrediting agencies.
Accreditation is a voluntary process, and preparing an accreditation report can be labor-intensive. Most accreditors recommend that institutions start preparing their accreditation report about two years in advance of the due date. Despite the time commitment and the voluntary nature of the process, the vast majority of institutions choose to pursue and maintain their accreditation for two important reasons. First, an institution must be accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the US Department of Education before its students can receive Title IV financial aid. Without access to federal financial aid, many institutions would face catastrophic declines in enrollment. Second, institutional accreditation is helpful when students want to transfer to another institution. Students from non-accredited institutions will generally have a harder time getting their transfer credits accepted at another institution. Many students now attend multiple institutions, either sequentially or concurrently, so the ease with which they can transfer their credits has become important.
In the United States, most institutions are accredited by one of seven regional accrediting agencies. They are: the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC, also called “WASC Senior”), and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). The latter two, WSCUC and ACCJC, are unique in that they focus on a single state (California) and focus on a specific tier of academia: WSCUC covers institutions granting baccalaureate degrees and higher, while ACCJC focuses on community and junior colleges. Some of the regional accreditors also accredit foreign institutions. Accreditation standards vary across the seven regional accreditors, but the spirit behind the standards (adherence to good practices in higher education) is the same.
In addition to the seven regional accreditors, there are also national accrediting agencies. These agencies typically work with for-profit institutions, or institutions focused on religion or career and vocational education. When choosing a software platform to facilitate the accreditation process, make sure that the provider is committed to loading your selected platform with all relevant and up to date standards. SPOL’s Accreditation platform can help monitor accreditation committees and agencies to assure continuous, up-to-date standards.
In addition to the regional accreditors, some programmatic accreditors accredit specific programs at an institution. These agencies often focus on programs such as nursing, engineering, and business and have their own standards apart from those set by regional agencies. Both programmatic and institutional accreditors are focused on ensuring that quality standards are being upheld by the program or institution in question. The important differences between the two types of accreditation can be summed up as follows:
- Covers the institution as a whole
- Has quality standards that are usually broader and are rarely prescriptive in terms of specific ways in which an institution must show compliance
- Is the gatekeeper for Title IV financial aid funds (Pell grants and federal student loans) for students at the institution
- Affects how easily students can transfer credit from institution to institution (a common example is a student who starts his or her post-secondary education at a community college, and later transfers to a four-year university)
- Is managed by the institution’s Accreditation Liaison Officer, often the chief academic officer or head of institutional effectiveness
- Is focused on one program (e.g., nursing), or a set of related programs (e.g., business, or engineering/applied sciences/technology)
- Has quality standards that can be very specific (e.g., to the point of providing specific questions that must be asked of graduates in a survey)
- Can affect how easily graduates can find work in their field
- Can affect whether graduates can take state licensure exams in their field
- Can affect whether graduates of a program are admitted to graduate school for further study in their field
- Is often managed by the department chair or Dean of the program in question
Institutional accreditors expect to be notified when an institution’s status changes with any other accreditor. In fact, if a program applies for programmatic accreditation and is denied, this must also be communicated to the institutional accrediting agency.
Managing an institution’s accreditation means dealing with a set of detailed standards and collecting many pieces of evidence. SPOL’s Accreditation platform helps manage the accreditation process in assigning accreditation standards to the most appropriate people in the department, writing and formatting the narrative sections of the report, uploading and maintaining evidence documents, and managing the workflow of the report-writing process, and in some cases can shave months off the time needed to prepare an accreditation report.