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Higher Education Accreditation (in the United States)

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Written on 18-Mar-2016 by Fidel A. Captain.


This paper is the course project for ED5570, which involves tracing the origins and development of higher education accreditation, analyzing how higher education accreditation has developed and changed over time, and envisioning how it might evolve in the future. A complete introduction is first given followed by a background on accreditation and historical influences and shared beliefs that helped shape the development of accreditation. This is followed by an explanation of how cultural factors affected the development of accreditation, how accreditation has shaped higher education organization structures and the impact of accreditation on policies and practices of higher education. Finally, there is a discussion on the future implications of the current trends and practices in accreditation.


For over a century, accreditation has been the means by which higher education institutions pronounce on the quality of their academic programs in the United States. It is known as “the oldest and best known seal of collegiate quality” (Bogue, 1998, p. 10), responsible for scrutinizing “colleges, universities and programs for quality assurance and quality improvement” (Eaton, 2012, p. 1) and today it is considered by the federal and state government of the United States as “a reliable authority on academic quality” (Eaton, 2012, p. 1).

Higher education accreditation has always been and still is today, a process conducted by members of academia in a non-profit organization that involves self-studies, peer-reviews, site visits and reports that help to assess the quality of the education offered by the institution (Brittingham, 2009, p. 14-15). Today, higher education accreditation not only pronounces on quality but plays a significant role in an institution’s self assessment, achievement of self-stated goals and the amount of federal funding received for some of its programs and for student financial aid (Eaton, 2012, p. 7).

In America today, the Department of Education recognizes or approves accreditors for higher education institutions and “publishes a list of nationally recognized accreditors” (U.S. Department of Education, 2015), but does not accredit individual institutions. In order for students and institutions to receive federal funding, they must be accredited from one of these recognized accreditors. There are four of these types of accreditors: (i) regional accreditors, (ii) national faith-related accreditors, (iii) national career-related accreditors, and (iv) programmatic accreditors (Eaton, 2012, p. 2).

This paper explores higher education accreditation in America. It first gives a historical review of higher education accreditation in America outlining the origins of accreditation and how it got to where it is today touching on some of the cultural factors that have helped shape the nature of accreditation today. After this, other issues are discussed that include the shared beliefs of the stakeholders and the effect accreditation has had on organizational structures, policies and practices in higher education. Finally, the paper discusses a few of the issues that may impact the future of higher education accreditation in America and their implications for higher education.


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).

Shared Beliefs

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.

Cultural Factors

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.

Effect on Organizational Structures

Accreditation is mainly about an institution’s ability to assess itself against its stated mission and goals and honestly and openly report on the findings, with the assumption that providing students with an education is embedded in its mission and goals. Initially, providing an education to students involved lecturers lecturing to the students and the students learning, but as institutions grew and with the advent of accreditation there came the need to verify that the students were learning. This meant putting structures in place to accommodate accreditation.

The institution needed more administrators to help them gather and process the data needed for accreditation and to help them accomplish their task of managing the university. “Both intellectually and in terms of its structure, the American university was becoming too diverse easily to define – or to control” (Veysey, 1965, 311). This gave rise to multiple departments dedicated to gathering, processing and reporting the data needed for accreditation.

New divisions that arose out of accreditation include quality assurance, institutional research and institutional effectiveness. Depending on the size of the university these may be one department or several departments and they would share the responsibility of gathering, processing, and reporting the data necessary for accreditation. This data is wide and varied and includes data on registration numbers, retention rates, graduation rates and student learning, all of which is now necessary as part of the accreditation process.

Smaller institutions may higher one or two individuals dedicated to quality assurance and institutional effectiveness whose job would be collect, process and report data on these matters related to accreditation, while larger institutions would have separate departments for quality assurance and institutional effectiveness. So important has accreditation become that the terms ‘quality assurance’, ‘institutional research’ and ‘institutional effectiveness’ are now enshrined in the vernacular of American colleges and universities.

Impact on policies and practices

Decisions on whether a higher education institution will seek or maintain accreditation is usually done at the board or trustee level and this determines the polices and practices of the institution with regards to what institutional data it collects and how this data is collected, processed and reported. An institution that is not accredited can collect whatever data it deems necessary, in whatever manner it pleases and for whatever purposes it needs, but an accredited institution must collect and report specific data, for a specific purpose, in a specific manner.

The self-study and its corresponding report is the main process by which data is collected and reported for accreditation, measuring an institution’s performance against the standards established by the accreditor (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). The Higher Learning Commission lists the self-study and peer-evaluation as two important and major processes that are part of accreditation, but each institution “has the prerogative to plan and conduct the self-study process in a way that leads to its preferred continuous improvement” (Higher Learning Commission, n.d.).

The issue of student learning outcomes being linked to accreditation became an issue in the 1980s because of a high default rate of federal student aid recepients and led to standards on institutional effectiveness becoming part of the accreditation data collected and reported on. This culminated in 1992 with the reaffirmation of the HEA that included specific “areas that accreditors needed to include in their standards and reviews, including curriculum, faculty, and student achievement” (Brittingham, 2009, p. 23).

The measurement and reporting of student learning outcomes continued to be a thorn in the side of accreditors and came to a head in 2006 when the Spellings Commission issued a report slamming accreditation’s inability to properly, consistently and across all higher education domains account for student learning. The Commission’s report criticized accreditation for “not providing “solid evidence, comparable across institutions, of how much students learn in colleges or whether they learn more at one college than another’” (Brittingham, 2009, p. 23).

Eaton (2010) notes that the Spellings Commission’s report said that accreditation “failed to address student achievement adequately, did not encourage innovation, and did not effectively inform the public about academic quality, failing to give students and the public the basis to compare institutions” (p. 2). Recommendations were put forward in the report to address these issues by having the institutions issue reports that are easily understandable and accessible about student achievement and ensuring student achievement is at the heart of pronouncements on academic quality (Eaton, 2010).

Future Implications

Since the first passage of the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 accreditation, the organizations responsible for accreditation play a critical role in the decisions regarding the disbursement of federal funds by allowing accredited institutions and students who attend these institutions to have easier access to federal funds. As a result, the federal government wants to play a more pivotal role in accreditation practices to the extent that “the traditional collegial practices of accreditation are increasingly eclipsed by regulatory practices imposed by government, both in the scope and the attention to the details of accreditation practice” (Eaton, 2012, p. 10).

The U.S. Department of Education (2016) notes “the President’s FY 2017 Budget provides $69.4 billion in discretionary funding and $139.7 billion in new mandatory funding for the U.S. Department of Education” (p. 2) for a total of $209.1 billion on education spending earmarked for 2017. With this amount of money being spent on education, the Government is pushing reforms that include simplifying and streamlining the federal student aid application and repayment process, and evidence based programs for identifying and supporting student success at all levels (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). These reforms will have a large impact on accreditation, the accreditation processes and the education ‘commodity’.

Education is now a commodity and a very special commodity because it is one that is crucial for national economic advancement, so important that the Government has budgeted over $209 billion for it in 2017. Consequently, the Government and the public have a right to ask and are asking questions about the quality of this commodity and would like to access information about this commodity and its quality. Eaton (2012) notes “It is not only the government but also the press and the general public who want more accountability from accreditation in the form of greater evidence of student achievement and institutional performance as well as increased transparency” (p. 8). Hence, the government’s attempt to put in place regulations regarding student learning and the publication of such information.

The U.S. Congress is still in the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA) and there are several bills before the House and Senate regarding reauthorization. These include acts on financial aid simplification and transparency, and strengthening transparency in higher education. The purpose of the former act is to “simplify the Federal student aid programs in order to provide (1) access to postsecondary education for students and families; and (2) information that will allow students and families to make better consumer choices” (Congress.gov, 2015); while the latter makes provisions for the establishment of a ‘College Dashboard website’ that will, among other things, make information available about accredited colleges nationwide, such as the degree completion rate and “the percentage of undergraduate students who obtained a certificate or degree from the institution who borrowed Federal student loans and the average Federal student loan debt incurred by an undergraduate student” (Congress.gov, 2015).

The Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act is a small step in the Government’s march towards “more accountability through accreditation in the form of greater evidence of student achievement” (Eaton, 2012, p. 8) because it makes information available about ‘completion data’ for students at any given college on the College Dashboard website to be published by the Secretary of Education. This act also facilitates institutional comparison on the College Dashboard website based on completion and other data, data gathered by the accreditation process that each institution listed goes through.


Higher education accreditation in America is an old and auspicious collegiate activity pronouncing on the quality of a higher education institution. This pronouncement gave the students, faculty and staff of the institution pride, the general public confidence in the institution and more importantly allowed the institution to conduct an introspection of its activities and improve in areas that it is deficient. Over the years, the government came to depend on the accreditation process and used it as a benchmark for the disbursement of federal funds to that institution for students and for the institution. However, with over tens of billions of dollars being disbursed to institutions based on accreditation and with the Spellings Commission’s report in 2006 citing shortcomings and inconsistencies in the accreditation process, the federal government began seeking greater oversight of the accreditation process much to the chagrin of those involved in the process. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) is still not complete, but the bills relating to the reauthorization of the HEA are proposing changes that will affect the accreditation process. The debate about the effectiveness of these changes on the integrity and openness of the much revered and once collegiate accreditation process of accreditation will rage on as long as the government is as deeply involved in it as it is.


Bogue, E. G. (1998). Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The Evolution of Systems and Design Ideals. New Directions For Institutional Research, 1998(99), 7.

Brittingham, B. (2009). Accreditation in the United States: How did we get to where we are?. New Directions For Higher Education, 2009(145), 7-27. doi:10.1002/he.331

Congress.gov. (2015). Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act of 2015. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/114/bills/s108/BILLS-114s108is.pdf

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Eaton, J. S. (2010). Accreditation and the federal future of higher education. Academe 96(5), 21-24,5.

Eaton, J. S. (2012). An Overview of US Accreditation – Revised. Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

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Hackett, B., & Bidwell, A. (2015). Advisory Committee Hearing Focuses on Higher Ed Reforms, Financial Aid Simplification. Retrieved from https://www.nasfaa.org/news-item/5841/advisory_committee_hearing_simplification

Hall, J. (2012). Higher-education accreditation market regulation or government regulation? The Independent Review, 17(2), 233-238.

Higher Learning Commission. (n.d.). The Self-Study Process in Accreditation. Retrieved from https://www.hlcommission.org/PEAQ/self-study-process.html

Jackson, R. S., Davis, J. H., & Jackson, F. R. (2010). Redesigning regional accreditation: The impact on institutional planning. Planning for Higher Education, 38(4), 9-19.

NASFAA. (n.d.). Higher Education Act Reauthorization. Retrieved from https://www.nasfaa.org/higher_education_act_reauthorization

U.S. Department of Education. (2015). College Accreditation in the United States: Overview of Accreditation in the United States. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation.html

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). FY 2017 Education Budget Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/overview/budget/budget17/budget-factsheet.pdf

Veysey, L. R. (1965). The emergence of the American university. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.