Accreditation is the process for evaluating and assuring the quality of education used by the American higher education community. It is a uniquely American quality assurance process through which institutions collectively set standards for good practice, conduct peer-based evaluations of institutions on a regular basis, confer accredited status on institutions, and make the results of accreditation review of institutions known to the public.
Through accreditation, the higher education community shoulders the responsibility for monitoring the quality of the programs and services of member institutions. Agencies that develop and apply standards are often called accrediting commissions. Accrediting commissions were created by the collective group of institutions that wished to engage in the quality review and assurance process, and those institutions were and are referred to as the member institutions of a commission.
There are three types of accrediting agencies or commissions used in the United States.
Regional Accreditation: The most highly regarded form of institutional accreditation, and that sought by most academic institutions with comprehensive missions, is conducted by accrediting agencies that have chosen to organize themselves into six broad geographic regions of the country. These are referred to as the regional accrediting commissions and operate in the New England states, the mid-Atlantic states, the southern states, the middle or north central states, the northwestern states, and the western states and U.S. territories of the Pacific. The commissions in these six regions, which have standards that cover the entire institution, require that a component of general education be included in all degree programs. These commissions issue a periodic report on the quality of the entire institution according to processes and procedures established by each commission. The regional accrediting commissions set a very high standard for the performance of the entire institution. Not all higher education institutions can meet these standards.
Programmatic Accreditation: Programmatic accrediting agencies provide quality assurance for individual degree programs that may be offered within accredited institutions but that require special review because their graduates become licensed practitioners (for example, nursing, medical, culinary programs or law schools). The programmatic accrediting agencies assure that the quality of the educational program meets the national and state standards and that graduates are prepared to pass licensure examinations.
National Accreditation: National accrediting agencies accredit institutions with specialized missions (for example, businesses colleges or colleges of art and design). These are referred to as the specialized or national accrediting commissions.
The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) accredits associate degree granting institutions in California, Hawaii, the Territories of Guam and American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. ACCJC is one of three commissions under the corporate entity known as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) is the corporate entity that consists of three separately organized commissions within the western region. WASC separates the two kinds of higher education institutions (two-year and four-year) into separate commissions. The three commissions that make up WASC are:
- The Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (ACSCU), which accredits public and private senior colleges and universities;
- The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which evaluates and accredits public and private postsecondary institutions that offer two-year education programs and award the associate degree;
- The Accrediting Commission for Schools (ACS), which has the responsibility for the accreditation of all schools below the college level. Included are elementary, junior high, middle, high and adult schools, whether public, private or church-related.
The purposes of ACCJC are to evaluate member institutions to assure the educational community, the general public, and other organizations and agencies that an institution has clearly defined objectives appropriate to higher education; has established conditions under which their achievement can reasonably be expected; appears in fact to be accomplishing them substantially; is so organized, staffed, and supported that it can be expected to continue to do so; and demonstrates that it meets commission standards. The commission encourages and supports institutional development and improvement through self study and periodic evaluation by qualified peer professionals.
Process for becoming accredited
Prior to making a formal application, an institution wishing to become a candidate for accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges must begin by assessing itself in relation to the basic criteria for institutional eligibility through an eligibility application and supporting documentation. The institution should also review the standards of accreditation and commission policies, which provide a clear statement of ultimate commission expectations of institutional performance and quality and give further definition to the eligibility criteria. The eligibility process is designed to screen institutions prior to a period of formal and extensive institutional self study so that only institutions that meet the basic criteria for eligibility may proceed. Following review, the institution may be granted or denied eligibility.
If eligibility is granted, the institution may apply for candidacy status by completing and submitting a "Self Study Report" using the standards of accreditation, the Self Study Manual, and other commission policies and resources. This report is supported by evidence that is retained at the college for review by the accreditation team. The report is submitted to the commission, which sends a team to visit the college for the purpose of determining if the institution meets the standards, policies and eligibility criteria of the commission. Following the review, the institution may be granted candidacy or extension, deferral, denial or termination of candidacy by the commission.
If the commission grants candidacy, which is generally awarded for a period of two years, the institution next applies for initial accreditation. This is accomplished by submitting the Self Study Report using the standards of accreditation, the Self Study Manual, and other commission policies and resources. This Self Study Report is supported by evidence that the institution continues to meet the eligibility requirements, as well as the standards and policies. Following submission of the report, a team visits the institution for the purpose of ensuring the college meets all standards of the commission. Following the review of the self study and team reports, the institution may be granted initial accreditation, extension or denial of initial accreditation.
If initial accreditation is granted, the institution then begins a six-year cycle of periodic review for reaffirmation of accreditation, which has several parts. These include a six-year comprehensive evaluation, a mid-term evaluation in the third year, annual reports and annual fiscal reports to the commission, and other progress and substantive change reports and visits as deemed necessary by the commission.
Sources: Policy on Commission Actions on Institutions, 2005 Accreditation Reference Handbook, page 50; 2004 Eligibility, Candidacy and Initial Accreditation Manual.
The entire process described above is characterized and driven by peer review. An institution at any stage in the process (eligibility, candidacy, initial accreditation and reaffirmation of accreditation) begins its self study by examining itself and preparing a report detailing how well and to what degree it continues to meet the eligibility criteria, standards and policies of the commission. During that period of self evaluation, the institution is encouraged to seek broad input from the various constituent groups on campus and provide for periodic and open dialog and contribution. The resultant Self Study Report represents the institution's honest appraisal of how it continues to meet all commission expectations.
Peer review is also characteristic of the subsequent levels of evaluation of an institution. A team is selected from a pool of peer evaluators that has been recommended by the ACCJC member institutions themselves and scrutinized by commission staff. Team members are trained by commission staff in their roles and responsibilities as representatives of the commission while conducting the evaluation visits. Under the direction of a team leader, the team evaluates the quality of the institution by assessing the degree to which it meets standards and adheres to policies. The resultant team report and confidential recommendation are submitted to the commission for consideration. Following submission of the report, the commission (itself made up of 19 individuals, of whom 14 are institutional representatives) acts on the accredited status of the institution and decides on a course of follow-up to cover the six years leading to the next comprehensive review.
Sources: 2005, Self Study Manual; 2005 Team Evaluator Manual; Policy on Commission Actions on Institutions – 2005 Accreditation Reference Handbook (ARH), page 50; Code of Commission Good Practice in Relations with Member Institutions – 2005 ARH, page 47; Disclosure and Confidentiality of Information – 2005 ARH, page 65; Policy and Procedures for the Evaluation of Institutions in Multi-College/Multi-Unit Districts or Systems – 2005 ARH, page 70; Policy on the Rights and Responsibilities of ACCJC and Member Institutions in the Accrediting Process – 2005 ARH, page 104; Representation of Accredited Status – 2005 ARH, page 108; Review of Commission Actions – 2005 ARH, page 110; Substantive Change Policy – 2005 ARH, page 127.
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) provides oversight to the American system of accreditation. It conducts a review of each legitimate accrediting commission every five years and confers, on accrediting bodies that qualify, the status of recognition. All institutions wishing to provide students with federal financial aid must seek accreditation from a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting body. The Higher Education Act, periodically reviewed and renewed by the Congress of the United States, contains the criteria that accrediting commissions must meet if they are to obtain recognition from the US DOE.
In addition, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has established criteria of excellence and a quality review system that define quality for accrediting bodies. Although accrediting commissions are not compelled to seek CHEA recognition, many accrediting agencies voluntarily participate in the CHEA quality review process as part of their own efforts to establish and maintain quality in accreditation practices.
Primary Source: Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, 2008