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March 31, 2014

Accreditation in the United States is unique process of external quality review used by the higher education community to evaluate colleges, universities, and programs for quality assurance and quality improvement.  This process, which is more than 100 years old, is carried  out by 80 private, non-profit organizations (regional, national, and programmatic agencies) that review institutions in all 50 states and more than 125 other countries.  They also review programs in a range of professions such as theology, law, medicine, nursing,, music, and social work.

Accreditation of institutions and programs takes place on a cycle that may range from a few years to as many as 10 years.The common steps required by accreditation agencies include:  self-study, peer review, site visit, accrediting agency judgment, and periodic external review.  The Council for Higher Education Accreditation states it succinctly, "Accreditation is a trust-based, standards-based, evidence-based, peer-based process."

Both the federal government and state governments have considered accreditation to be a reliable authority on academic quality.  The federal government has also relied on accreditation to assure the quality of institutions and programs for which the government provides federal funds and for which the government provides federal aid to students.  State governments will often require accreditation to make state funds available to institutions and students.

However, the landscape of accreditation is changing in three major ways.  One, it has become more visible, inviting more public scrutiny and attention.  This has grown out of criticism of the cost of higher education and low graduation rates at some institutions.  Accreditation agencies have been charged with not being tough enough.  They have responded with greater public accountability and transparency, leading to increasing comment and criticism in the press.

Two, accreditation is increasingly government controlled, particularly at the federal level, serving more as an instrument of government policy.  The federal government has had a large and growing investment in higher eduction and is expected to exert even greater authority in the future.  The increase in government oversight is forcing accrediting organizations to become agencies for ensuring that institutions comply with government laws and regulations.

Three, accreditation is being challenged to respond to the latest waves of innovation in higher education, particularly with respect to on-line education and the growth of proprietary institutions.

In summary, the role of accreditation, like almost everything else in education, is changing.  New demands will require accreditation agencies, and the institutions they serve, to be even more intentional in assuring and advancing quality higher education.

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant

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