Overview of Accreditation in the United States 

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| Also refer to: History and Context of Accreditation |


The goal of accreditation is to ensure that institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality. Accreditation in the United States involves non-governmental entities as well as federal and state government agencies. Accreditation’s quality assurance function is one of the three main elements of oversight governing the Higher Education Act’s (HEA’s) federal student aid programs. In order for students to receive federal student aid from the U.S. Department of Education (Department) for postsecondary study, the institution must be accredited 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.

Role of Accrediting Agencies (Accreditors)

Accreditors, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an accreditor's evaluation and that meet an accreditor's criteria are then "accredited"

Role of Department

Under the HEA the Department “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, and the Department publishes a list of nationally recognized accreditors. The Department does not accredit individual educational institutions and/or programs and is not directly involved in the institutional or programmatic accrediting process. The Department recognizes only accreditors that apply for recognition; many do not. Along with its recognition decision, the Department designates the scope of accrediting activities to which its recognition pertains.

Accreditor Recognition Process

An accreditor seeking recognition from the Secretary of Education must meet the Department’s regulatory criteria for the recognition of accreditors, and must have a link to a federal program (e.g., federal student aid). Only accreditors recognized by the Secretary can provide the gate-keeping function to allow institutions they accredit to participate in the federal student aid programs under the HEA. Some of the criteria for recognition, such as the criterion requiring a link to Federal programs, have no bearing on the quality of an accreditor; however, they do have the effect of making some accreditors ineligible for recognition for reasons other than quality. The recognition process involves reviews by the Department’s Accreditation Group staff and the (NACIQI). Both the staff and NACIQI recommendations are submitted to the Senior Department Official designated by the Secretary who makes the decision regarding recognition.

The Secretary also recognizes various state agencies for the approval of public postsecondary vocational education and for the approval of nursing education. These agencies must meet separate sets of recognition criteria and their applications for recognition also undergo review by the Accreditation Group staff and the NACIQI.

Foreign Institutions and Programs

The Department’s recognition of accreditors does not extend to the approval or accreditation any accreditor may grant to foreign institutions or programs. However, the Secretary does appoint members to the National Committee on Foreign Medical Education and Accreditation (Committee). That Committee has the legal responsibility for reviewing the standards that foreign countries use to accredit medical schools in those countries to determine whether those standards are comparable to the standards used to accredit medical schools in the United States. The comparability decisions made by the Committee affect whether U.S. students attending foreign medical schools can receive loans under the Department’s federal student aid loan programs.


History and Context of Accreditation in the United States

In the United States, institutions of higher education are permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy. The United States has no Ministry of Education or other centralized federal authority exercising control over the quality of postsecondary educational institutions, and the states assume varying degrees of control over education. As a consequence, American educational institutions can vary widely in the character and quality of their programs. To ensure a basic level of quality, the practice of accreditation arose in the United States as a means of conducting nongovernmental, peer evaluation of educational institutions and programs. With the passage of the HEA in 1965, Congress expanded accreditors’ role by entrusting them with ensuring academic quality of the educational institutions at which federal student aid funds may be used subject to oversight by the federal government through the recognition process. Private educational associations of regional or national scope have adopted criteria intended to reflect the qualities of a sound educational program and have developed procedures for evaluating institutions or programs to determine whether or not they are operating at basic levels of quality. Although accreditors promulgate standards to ensure institutional quality, the accreditors have no legal control over educational institutions or programs.

Under the HEA, the Department does not have the authority to recognize accrediting bodies for the accreditation of private or public elementary and secondary schools. If an accrediting body which is recognized by the Department for higher education also accredits elementary and secondary schools, the Department's recognition applies only to the accreditor’s accreditation of postsecondary institutions or programs.

Some Important 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

Note: Accreditation does not provide automatic acceptance by an institution of credit earned at another institution, nor does it give assurance of acceptance of graduates by employers. Students should contact the receiving institution to help determine whether credits are transferrable. Acceptance of credit or graduates is always the prerogative of the receiving institution or employer. For these reasons, besides ascertaining the accredited status of an institution or program, students should take additional measures to determine, prior to enrollment, whether their educational goals will be met through attendance at a particular institution. Those measures should include inquiries to institutions to which transfer might be desired or to prospective employers, as well as any private or governmental entity responsible for licensing or certifying graduates to work in the field for which the educational program is intended.

Primary Accrediting Activities

  1. Standards: The accreditor, 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 accreditor.
  3. On-site evaluation: A team of peers selected by the accreditor 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 accreditor 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 accreditor 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 accreditor periodically reevaluates each institution or program that it lists to ascertain whether continuation of its accredited or preaccredited status is warranted.

Types of Accreditation

There are two basic types of educational accreditation, one referred to as "institutional" and the other referred to as "specialized" or "programmatic."

Institutional accreditation applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution's parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution's objectives. The regional and national accreditors perform institutional accreditation.

Specialized or programmatic accreditation normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are parts of an institution. The accredited unit may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline. Most of the specialized or programmatic accreditors review units within an institution of higher education that is accredited by one of the regional or national accreditors. However, certain accreditors also accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational institutions of higher education that are freestanding in their operations. Thus, a "specialized" or "programmatic" accreditor may also function in the capacity of an "institutional" accreditor. Some of these “institutions” are found within non-educational settings, such as hospitals.

The Accreditation Group

The Accreditation Group has been established within the Department of Education to deal with accreditation matters. Located in the Office of Postsecondary Education, the Group carries out the following major functions with respect to accreditation:

  1. Continuously reviews standards, policies, procedures, and issues in the area of the Department of Education's accreditation responsibilities.
  2. Administers the process by which accreditors and state approval agencies secure initial and renewed recognition by the Secretary of Education.
  3. Serves as the Department's liaison with accreditors and state approval agencies.
  4. Consults with institutions, associations, state agencies, other federal agencies, and Congress regarding accreditation.
  5. Interprets and disseminates policy relative to accreditation issues for the Department.
  6. Conducts appropriate research.
  7. Provides administrative support for the Secretary's National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

Accreditation Group
U. S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW #6W243 
Washington, DC 20202
Telephone: (202) 453-7615


Summary of the Recognition Process for Accreditors

The process for the recognition of accreditors is set forth in 34 CFR Part 602 Subpart C. A summary of the application and recognition process is provided below.

Accreditors desiring recognition by the Secretary of Education must apply and demonstrate their compliance with the criteria for recognition set forth in 34 CFR Part 602 Subpart B. An accreditor's application for recognition generally consists of a statement of the accreditor's requested scope of recognition, evidence of the accreditor's compliance with the criteria for recognition set forth in part 602, and supporting documentation.

An accreditor's application for initial recognition or renewal of recognition consists of a narrative statement, organized on a criterion-by-criterion basis, showing how the accreditor complies with the regulatory criteria. Depending on the recognition criterion, the narrative may be detailed or streamlined, and in all cases must be accompanied by clearly referenced supporting documentation demonstrating that the accreditor meets the requirement. At a minimum, the accreditor must include the following documents to support its application:

  • Accreditation standards and procedures
  • Operational policies and procedures
  • Most recent externally audited financial statement
  • Published list of accredited institutions or programs
  • Self-study guidelines
  • Guidance and training materials for on-site evaluation team members
  • Sample completed self-studies
  • Sample on-site evaluation reports
  • Sample institution or program responses to on-site evaluation reports
  • Sample minutes of decision meetings
  • Accreditor’s constitution and bylaws
  • List of complaints received by the accreditor against accredited programs or institutions

Application for Initial Recognition

Recognition is granted by the Secretary to an accreditor that meets certain federal eligibility requirements and can demonstrate compliance with all of the criteria for recognition, establishing through its accrediting actions and decisions that it is a reliable authority regarding the quality of education offered by the institutions or programs it accredits. The Accreditation Group accepts applications for initial recognition at any time.

Agencies seeking initial recognition should contact the Accreditation Group to discuss the basic eligibility requirements and the application process. If the Department staff believes the accreditor meets the basic eligibility requirements, the accreditor will be provided with the information needed to submit an application through the Department’s electronic system.

To request consideration at a particular meeting of the NACIQI, an accreditor seeking initial recognition must submit its application at least six months in advance of that meeting. Consideration of the accreditor's application at the first NACIQI meeting that occurs after the six-month time frame is not guaranteed, however, as Department staff may need more time to complete its independent evaluation of the accreditor and to observe at least some of the accreditor's on-site evaluations and decision meetings, as required by §602.32(b)(1) of the regulations.

An accreditor considering applying for initial recognition is encouraged to contact the Accreditation Group as early as possible to discuss its possible application and to afford staff the opportunity to observe its on-site evaluations and decision meetings. Because observation of an accreditor's on-site evaluations and decision meetings by staff is a critical component of the review of the accreditor's application, it is imperative that an accreditor seeking initial recognition submit a list of scheduled evaluations and decision meetings with its application for recognition. If an accreditor does not provide staff with an opportunity to observe an adequate number of on-site evaluations and decision meetings (typically 2-3 of each) before the NACIQI meeting at which the accreditor requests consideration of its application, staff may recommend that the accreditor's application be denied.

Agencies seeking initial recognition are reminded that recognition by the Secretary is not a prerequisite for an accreditor to function as an accrediting body, i.e., an accreditor does not have to obtain federal recognition before it begins to accredit institutions or programs. An accreditor seeking recognition must demonstrate that its accreditation is a required element in enabling at least one of the institutions or programs it accredits to establish eligibility to participate in one or more federal programs. Beyond that basic eligibility requirement, a new accreditor will need to have had at least two years' experience functioning as an accreditor - establishing standards, evaluating institutions or programs for compliance with those standards, and making accrediting decisions based on those standards - before it submits its application for recognition. In addition, a new accreditor will need to be mindful of the recognition criterion requiring it to establish that it has gained wide acceptance of its standards, methods of evaluation, and accreditation decisions, as required by §602.13 of the regulations. Staff will also consider whether the new accreditor has been organized under conditions that reasonably ensure its stability and permanence.

Application for Continued Recognition

Agencies that have been granted recognition by the Secretary are officially notified of the expiration date of their recognition period in a letter each time recognition is granted or renewed. They should plan to submit their applications for renewal of recognition approximately six months in advance of the spring or fall meeting of the NACIQI that precedes that expiration date. As with the initial application, Accreditation Group observation of accrediting activities (e.g., decision meetings, on-site evaluations, etc.) is an important component of the renewal process.

Staff Analysis of an Accreditor's Application

The application review process conducted by the Department includes analysis of the application and observation of some of the accreditor's on-site evaluations and/or decision-making activities by Accreditation Group staff. Staff members may also conduct onsite observation of accreditor administrative offices to conduct interviews of accreditor staff and to review the accreditor's facilities, records and administrative operations. They may also conduct interviews or surveys of other persons, organizations, or institutions concerning the accreditor's approval process in order to obtain further information relating to the accreditor's compliance with the Criteria for Recognition. Department staff then prepares a written analysis of the accreditor's application for recognition, which includes a recommendation on recognition.

Hearing Before the Advisory Committee

When Department staff completes its evaluation of an accreditor's application for recognition, the accreditor's application is placed on the meeting agenda of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). NACIQI is a federal advisory committee that operates according to the requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Its 18 members are appointed equally by the Secretary, House of Representatives, and the Senate. In preparation for the meeting, NACIQI is provided with the accreditor's application and supporting documentation; the final staff analysis of the application; the staff's recommendation on recognition; all information relied upon by staff in developing the analysis; at the accreditor's request, any response by the accreditor to the draft staff analysis, and any written third-party comments the Department timely received about the accreditor and accreditor response.

NACIQI meets at least twice a year to review applications for recognition submitted by accreditors. The usual times for NACIQI meetings are spring (May-June) and fall (November-December). Each member of NACIQI receives every staff analysis of an application for recognition and all the other materials mentioned in the preceding paragraph. The Executive Director of NACIQI usually assigns two or more individuals to serve as principal readers for each application.

An accreditor that applies for recognition is invited to make an oral presentation before the NACIQI. NACIQI also hears oral presentations from third parties who request to be heard. Department staff is available throughout NACIQI meetings to respond to questions. NACIQI conducts its business in public, and a transcript of the proceedings is made.

Determination by the Senior Department Official

After each meeting, NACIQI’s and Department staff's recommendations concerning recognition are forwarded to the Senior Department Official, who makes the decision regarding recognition. An accreditor that disagrees with the decision of the Senior Department Official may appeal to the Secretary (as may the Senior Department Official). Accreditors may be granted initial recognition or renewal of recognition for a period of up to five years.

Determination by the Senior Department Official

An application for expansion of an accreditor's scope of recognition may be included as an integral part of an application for renewal of recognition or it may be submitted separately. If an expansion of scope is sought prior to the accreditor's next regularly scheduled review, accreditor personnel should consult with the Accreditation Group staff concerning the application format.