Program accreditation (also called specialized accreditation) is a type of accreditation that is focused on professional preparation programs within institutions of higher education (e.g., the Nursing program, the School of Business, etc.).
In many cases, programmatic accrediting agencies will only consider a program if its institution is accredited as a whole. There are many programmatic accrediting agencies, each focusing on a specific profession or a family of related professions. Some professions have multiple accrediting agencies.
- For example, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB), the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), and the International Accreditation Council for Business Education (IACBE) all focus on accrediting business programs. “Business” is a broad category, and covers several programs such as accounting, marketing, operations, etc.
- The Accreditation Council for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) are two accrediting agencies that focus on the nursing profession.
- The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is a programmatic accreditor focused on engineering, applied sciences, computing, and technology.
- Two programmatic accreditors that most people have probably heard of are the American Bar Association (ABA), focused on the legal profession, and the American Psychological Association (APA), representing psychologists.
When a program is accredited, it means that the program’s curriculum and quality have been evaluated and judged to meet the standards of a particular profession. Students choosing an accredited program know that they will be taught appropriate and relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities to enable them to succeed in that profession.
In some cases, employers won’t hire applicants who graduated from non-accredited programs. In other cases, state licensure boards will not allow people to sit for the profession’s licensure exam unless they have graduated from an accredited program. In addition, students who graduate from non-accredited programs will have a harder time being accepted into graduate school for further study in their chosen field.
Just as prospective students need to be careful to select accredited programs, students also need to be mindful of who the accreditors are. We have all heard of “diploma mills,” institutions that award academic degrees of low quality. There are also “accreditation mills,” agencies that have not been recognized by organizations such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the US Department of Education. The accreditation mills offer to award accreditation to programs or institutions without the rigor and high standards of the recognized accrediting agencies. When choosing a professional preparation program, students should make sure that the program’s accreditor is recognized by an agency such as CHEA or the Department of Education.
Both programmatic and institutional accreditors are focused on ensuring that quality standards are being upheld by the program or institution in question. There are important differences between the two types of accreditation. Here is a summary of the differences between programmatic and institutional accreditation:
- 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
- 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
Any negative finding by a programmatic accreditor can have consequences for the accreditation of the institution as a whole. Institutional accreditors expect to be notified when an institution’s status changes with any other accreditor. If the problems affecting a program are broad and far-reaching enough to have institutional ramifications (for example, if the program doesn’t have a strategic plan because the institution as a whole is behind the curve in its strategic planning process), that institutional accreditor can require the institution to prepare a special report detailed how it is addressing the issue. In fact, if a program applies for programmatic accreditation and is denied, this must also be communicated to the institutional accrediting agency.
Taken together, programmatic and institutional accreditation are two separate, but conceptually related, processes through which we ensure the quality of post-secondary education. Managing programmatic accreditation means dealing with a set of detailed standards, some of which may be quite different from those of the institutional accreditor.
Just as SPOL can help a college or university to manage its institutional accreditation, the tools in the Accreditation platform (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) are just as helpful when dealing with programmatic accreditation.