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What is Accreditation?

Accreditation is a process of external review used by the higher education community to assure quality and spur ongoing improvement. Accrediting commissions are private, nonprofit organizations whose members are the colleges and universities themselves. The commissions and visiting teams are made up of volunteers, and one of every seven commissioners is a representative of the public.


How long has the accreditation system been around?

Regional accreditation has a long history and has served the U.S. higher education system for more than 100 years. It relies on the rigorous process of peer review – not governmental monitoring – to define and evaluate whether institutions meet high standards. Self-regulation preserves the autonomy and diversity of higher education, two unique characteristics of our higher education system that contribute to its quality.

What is the Purpose of Accreditation?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are four primary functions of accreditation:


  1. Assess the quality of academic programs at institutions of higher education

  2. Create a culture of continuous improvement of academic quality at colleges and universities and stimulate a general raising of standards among educational institutions

  3. Involve faculty and staff comprehensively in institutional evaluation and planning

  4. Establish criteria for professional certification and licensure and for upgrading courses offering such preparation (applies to specialized/ programmatic accreditors)

Learn more about accreditation and its purpose in the U.S. higher education system from the U.S. Department of Education

Types of Accreditation
  • Institutional— There are two kinds of institutional accreditors, regional and national (more details below). While there is some overlap between and among these categories, the differentiation is a hallmark of our country's valuing a great diversity of choice in higher education.

    • Regional accreditors have historically accredited a vast range of institutions within a defined geographic region (and their instructional locations elsewhere). However, in 2019, the U.S. Department of Education advanced a negotiated rule making that designates all regional accreditors "institutional" accreditors. When the new rules go into effect in July 2020, accreditors will be allowed to approve institutions from outside their traditional regional boundaries, if they so choose.

    • National accreditors have historically accredited vocational institutions, institutions with certain religious missions, and institutions that deliver programs through distance education.  

  • ​Specialized/Programmatic—accredits programs, departments, or schools within a college or university.

How Does Accreditation Work?

The U.S. Department of Education describes accreditors’ primary activities as follows:


  1. Standards: The agency, in collaboration with educational institutions and/or programs, establishes standards.

  2. Self-study: The institution or program seeking accreditation prepares an in-depth self-evaluation report that measures its performance against the standards established by the agency.

  3. On-site evaluation: A team of peers selected by the agency reviews the institution or program on-site to determine first-hand if the applicant meets the established standards.

  4. Decision and publication: Upon being satisfied that the applicant meets its standards, the agency grants accreditation or preaccreditation status and lists the institution or program in an official publication with other similarly accredited or preaccredited institutions or programs. Only public and private non-profit institutions can qualify to award federal student aid based on preaccreditation.

  5. Monitoring: The agency monitors each accredited institution or program throughout the period of accreditation granted to verify that it continues to meet the accreditor's standards.

  6. Reevaluation: The agency periodically reevaluates each institution or program that it lists to ascertain whether continuation of its accredited or preaccredited status is warranted.

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