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Higher Education Accreditation (in the United States) - Background and Historical Influences

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Background

The late nineteenth century saw the formation of different associations of schools and colleges that laid the foundation for minimal standards of quality assurance that we see today in the form of accreditation. The first of these was the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in 1885, which was followed by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools in 1887, the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges in 1895, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1895, the Northwest Association of Colleges and Universities in 1917 and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in 1924 (Brittingham, 2009, p. 14). However, these associations were initially concerned with identifying which institutions were actually colleges and with setting out criteria for membership to the associations rather than with quality control (Brittingham, 2009, p. 14).

From its inception, accreditation was a non-profit, non-governmental, self-regulatory enterprise involving members of academia, but the acts of conducting assessments and reviews of processes and procedures that assess and pronounce on educational quality came later. Brittingham (2009) notes that it was in 1934 the first ‘mission-oriented’ approach to accreditation was adopted and not until 1965 that the regional accrediting bodies adopted today’s fundamental precepts of the accreditation process: “a mission-based approach, standards, a self-study prepared by the institution, a visit by a team of peers who produced a report, and a decision by a commission overseeing a process of periodic review” (p. 14 – 15).

Today, higher education institutional accreditation for degree granting institutions is still done by one of the regional accreditors, national faith-related accreditors, or national career-related accreditors and the U.S. Department of Education recognizes or approves these accreditors, publishing “a list of nationally recognized accreditors” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit individual institutions, but only “‘recognizes’ (approves) accreditors that the Secretary of Education determines to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by institutions of higher education” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

The government’s first relationship with accreditation came with the passage of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, when it “expanded accreditors’ role by entrusting them with ensuring academic quality of the educational institutions at which federal student aid funds may be used” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). This relationship has grown over the years and it is very strong today as the federal government uses accreditation as the basis for the disbursement of over $209 billion dollars (U.S. Department of Education, 2015).

Historical influences

Higher education accreditation in the United States is over 100 years old and is one of the oldest and most reliable markers of educational quality in America. It began in 1885 with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ quest to ensure that college bound students met minimum entry requirements and by 1929 it morphed into a system where colleges had to meet minimum requirements for membership to the Association.

By the 1940s there were six regional associations that ‘accredited’ higher education institutions and in 1949 the “National Commission on Accrediting (NCA) [was] founded by higher education associations to reduce duplication and burden in accreditation” (Brittingham, 2009, p. 9). In the 1950s and early 1960s accreditation developed “mission-centered standards, self-study, team visit, commission decision, and periodic review” (Brittingham, 2009, p. 9).

A new era of government association with accreditation began in 1952 with them tying financial aid to the Veterans Readjustment Act and culminated in 1965 with the passage of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which allowed many students at ‘accredited’ colleges to receive federal financial aid. This Act was ‘reauthorized’ several times and as of September 2015 the US congress was in the process of reauthorizing the HEA and “the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance convened a meeting of experts to discuss potential suggestions for reform to include in a reauthorization bill” (Hackett & Bidwell, 2015).

Today, accreditation can be carried out by one of many accreditation bodies (accreditors), but in order to receive federal funds for the students or institution these accreditors must be ‘recognized’ by a “‘nationally recognized’ accreditor (or, for certain vocational institutions, approved by a recognized state approval agency), be authorized by the state in which the institution is located, and receive approval from the Department through a program participation agreement” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Recognition, Eaton (2012) notes, “is carried out either by another private organization, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA, a national coordinating body for institutional and programmatic accreditation) or the United States Department of Education (USDE)” (p. 5).