Accreditation in the United States
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Overview of Accreditation in the United States

 

| 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 (accrediting organizations) as well as federal and state government agencies (these three entities are formally known as the Triad). 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" accrediting agency.

Role of Accrediting Agencies

Accrediting agencies, which are private educational associations that 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) accrediting agencies 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 accrediting agencies. Authority: 34 Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) Part 602 and Section 496 of the HEA as amended)

The Department also recognizes State agencies for the approval of vocational educational institutions authorized by the State in which the institution is located, and that receive approval through the Secretary's recognition process. Recognition of a state approval agency for vocational education allows student to receive federal student aid from the Department. The Department also publishes a list of nationally recognized state approval agencies. Authority: 34 Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) Part 603 and Section 487 (c)(4) of the HEA as amended)

The Department also recognizes state agencies for the approval of nursing education authorized by the State which the program is located to approve nursing programs for non-HEA purposes and that receive approval through the Secretary's recognition process. The Department also publishes a list of nationally recognized state agencies for the approval of nursing education. Authority: 1969 Federal Register Notice (the "Nursing Federal Register Notice") originally issued under the authority of the Nurse Training Act, 42 U.S.C. § 298(b). The provisions of the Nurse Training Act relating to accreditation of nursing programs are now contained in the Public Health Service Act at 42 U.S.C. § 296(6)(A). 

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 agencies 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.

Accrediting Agencies Recognition Process

An accrediting agency or state approval agency seeking recognition from the Secretary of Education (Secretary) must meet the Department's regulatory criteria for the recognition of accrediting agencies and state approval agencies and must have a Federal Link (HEA or non-HEA). Only agencies 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.  Accrediting agencies that accredit only educational programs located in institutions of higher education apply for recognition for non-HEA purposes.  The recognition process involves reviews by the Department's Accreditation Group (AG) staff and the National Advisor Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). Both the (AG staff and NACIQI recommendations are submitted to the Senior Department Official designated by the Secretary who makes the decision regarding recognition.

State agencies for the approval of public postsecondary vocational education and for the approval of nursing education 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 agencies does not extend foreign institutions or programs. However, the Secretary does appoint members to the National Committee on Foreign Medical Education and Accreditation (NCFMEA). 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. Accreditation Group staff reviews the medical education standards used by foreign countries using guidelines established by the NCFMEA. AG staff reports finding to the NCFMEA, and the NCFMEA makes a comparability determination.

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Last Modified: 11/22/2021