What is Accreditation?
The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Accreditation in the United States involves non-governmental entities as well as governmental agencies.
Accrediting agencies, 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 agency’s evaluation and that meet an agency’s criteria are then “accredited” by that agency.
The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit educational institutions and/or programs. However, the Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary determines to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit. An agency seeking national recognition by the Secretary must meet the Secretary’s procedures and criteria for the recognition of accrediting agencies, as published in the Federal Register. Some of the criteria for recognition, such as the criterion requiring a link to Federal programs, have no bearing on the quality of an accrediting agency; however, they do have the effect of making some agencies ineligible for recognition for reasons other than quality. The recognition process involves not only filing an application with the U. S. Department of Education but also review by the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which makes a recommendation to the Secretary regarding recognition. The Secretary, after considering the Committee’s recommendation, makes the final determination regarding recognition.
The U.S. Secretary of Education also recognizes State agencies for the approval of public post secondary vocational education and State agencies for the approval of nurse education. These agencies must meet the Secretary’s criteria and procedures for such recognition and must undergo review by the National Advisory Committee.
The U. S. Department of Education does not accredit institutions in foreign countries. However, the Secretary of Education does appoint members to the National Committee on Foreign Medical Education and Accreditation. The law gives that Committee the responsibility for reviewing the standards that foreign countries use to accredit medical schools 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 Federal Family Education Loan Program.
Accreditation in the U.S.
The United States has no Federal Ministry of Education or other centralized authority exercising single national control over post secondary educational institutions in this country. The States assume varying degrees of control over education, but, in general, institutions of higher education are permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy. As a consequence, American educational institutions can vary widely in the character and quality of their programs.