Accreditation is used by parents and students in deciding which college to send their students to, by the federal government to decide whether or not disburse funds to institutions, and by faculty and administrators as a mark of pride in the quality of their work and their institution. Brittingham (2009) describes American accreditation as being unique in the world because it is non-governmental, self-regulatory, peer-reviewed, conducted by volunteers, and relies on the candor of the institutions involved (p. 10).
According to Eaton (2012) accreditation is “built on a core set of academic values and beliefs” (p. 3) that include the purpose and mission of an institution is significant to that institution, the close relationship between the institution’s purpose and mission and academic quality, and that the primary responsibility of any higher education institution should be academic quality (p. 3). These shared beliefs and higher education’s action on these beliefs have led to accreditation becoming the important seal and marker of quality that it is today.
The ‘self-study’ is a report produced by the institution seeking accreditation that summarizes its performance based on the standards outlined by the accrediting body (Eaton, 2012, p. 4). This report summarizes the extent to which the institution and by extension its employees believe that they are in compliance with the standards put forward by the accrediting body. It relies on the honesty of the institution seeking accreditation and the honesty of that institution’s employees who create the report, which is another core shared belief of accreditation – candor of the institutions involved.
Eaton (2012) says, “accreditation is a trust-based, standards-based, evidence-based, judgment-based, peer-based process” (p. 5) of which self-regulation is at the core. The Government only provides oversight of this process, for the purposes of disbursement of federal funds only, by ensuring that accreditors meet regulatory criteria set up by the U.S. Department of Education. This gives accreditors autonomy over their individual accreditation processes, only specifying criteria if that accreditor wishes to be recognized by the Department of Education and those who do not wish to be so recognized are free to define their accreditation process as they see fit. This is one of the freedoms granted in the Constitution of the United States and a shared belief of all Americans.
From its inception, higher education accreditation was organized and conducted by academics that believed higher education institutions could be trusted to assess themselves, conduct honest peer reviews, and honestly report the findings of these reviews in an effort to improve their institutions. This relies heavily on the honesty of the academics at the institution being accredited, an innate quality of not only American academics, but academics worldwide.
The US Constitution and the US Congress provided the other fundamental basis for accreditation to arise, grow and maintain its status because they left the development of higher education to the individual states, and when it did meddle in the affairs of higher education was shot down by the Supreme Court – Dartmouth v. William H. Woodward. The U.S. Constitution does not provide for governmental interference in the private affairs of its citizens, of which the running of a private higher education institution is considered one of them. As such, the citizens must provide oversight of their own higher education institutions, which is done via accreditation.
The last cultural factor that affected accreditation is what Brittingham (2009) described as the American belief in an individual’s ability to set a self-identified goal and achieve it (p. 11), which is what accreditation is all about – assessing yourself and your achievements against your stated goals in an honest and open manner. Accreditation arose in the absence of any regulatory body for education quality and over the years became the de-facto body for assessing the quality of a higher education institution with regards to the education it provides. The fact that an institution, through a self-regulated body that it can contribute to, can assess itself and its achievements against its stated goals in an honest and open manner is uniquely American.