Higher education in America is unique in the world because of its reliance on accreditation to ensure quality and to foster a culture of continued improvement. The United States has no Federal Ministry of Education or other centralized authority exercising single national control over postsecondary 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.
The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by programs and institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Accrediting agencies, develop evaluation criteria and conduct 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.
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The Value of Accreditation to Stakeholders
Students – accreditation provides a measure of educational quality and in many cases, helps facilitate a student’s academic progression, including transfer credit from one institution to another.
Lawmakers – accreditation provides assurance that education programs are evaluated against nationally accepted standards and that program graduates are competent for entry into the workplace or for advanced practice.
Educators and Practitioners – accreditation provides validation of the education program, as well as the opportunity for academic administrators, faculty and practitioners to build consensus on expected learning outcomes and graduate competencies.
Employers – accreditation assures prospective employers that graduates come from a program or school where the content and quality satisfy established standards.
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Functions of Accreditation
- Verifies that an institution or program meets established standards;
- Assists prospective students in identifying acceptable institutions;
- Assists institutions in determining the acceptability of transfer credits;
- Helps to identify institutions and programs for the investment of public and private funds;
- Protects an institution against harmful internal and external pressure;
- Fosters continuous improvement by measuring programs against national standards and their own stated missions and goals;
- Involves the institution’s stakeholders or communities of interest in institutional evaluation and planning;
- Sets a competency threshold for regulators to use when establishing criteria for entry into practice, including eligibility for professional certification and/or licensure; and
- Provides a sound basis for determining eligibility for Federal assistance.
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The Accrediting Procedure
- Standards: The accrediting agency, in collaboration with educational institutions, licensing agencies, practitioners, and the public establishes standards.
- Self-study: The institution or program seeking accreditation prepares an in-depth self-evaluation study that measures its performance against the standards established by the accrediting agency.
- On-site Evaluation: A team selected by the accrediting agency visits the institution or program to determine first-hand if the applicant meets the established standards.
- Publication: Upon being satisfied that the applicant meets its standards, the accrediting agency grants accreditation or preaccreditation status and lists the institution or program in an official publication with other similarly accredited or preaccredited institutions or programs. Many accrediting agencies include their lists on their web sites.
- Monitoring: The accrediting agency monitors each accredited institution or program throughout the period of accreditation granted to verify that it continues to meet the agency’s standards.
- Reevaluation: The accrediting agency periodically reevaluates each institution or program that it lists to ascertain whether continuation of its accredited or preaccredited status is warranted.
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Types of Accreditation:
- Institutional accreditation -- granted by regional and national accrediting commissions. In evaluating quality, the accrediting agency looks at the entire institutional unit, such as state universities or private institutions. Accreditation is awarded based on overall compliance with the criteria. The college or university may have institutional accreditation without seeking accreditation from any of the specialized accrediting agencies. In many cases, institutional accreditation from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is necessary in order to facilitate transfer of credits.
- Specialized accreditation – awarded to professional programs within institutions or to occupational schools offering specific training skills and knowledge. Specialized accrediting agencies define standards of excellence in educational preparation programs for recognized professions. In addition to CORE, other well known specialized accreditors include organizations such as the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, and the Liaison Committee on Medical Education of the American Medical Association.
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The Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors - ASPA - is the only voice that solely represents specialized accrediting bodies in the United States. These accrediting bodies operate to ensure that students in educational programs receive an education consistent with standards for entry into practice or advanced practice in each of their respective fields or disciplines. With approximately 50 member agencies, the ASPA contributes to a unified, national voice for, and supports the importance of, specialized accreditation. All accrediting agencies holding membership in the ASPA abide by the ASPA-Member Code of Good Practice.
ASPA provides a collaborative forum and a collective voice for the community of U.S. agencies that assess the quality of specialized and professional higher education programs and schools. ASPA represents its members on issues of educational quality facing institutions of higher education, governments, students, and the public. ASPA also advances the knowledge, skills, good practices, and ethical commitments of accreditors, and communicates the value of accreditation as a means of enhancing educational quality. (Adopted: March 31, 2003)
ASPA member agencies subscribe to the widely referenced ASPA Code of Good Practice. A major focus of interest both to ASPA members and to the regional agencies is in enhancing the value of the accrediting process to the programs and institutions served, as well as to the public.
Strategies for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of accreditation include combined or joint on-site visitations, as described in the resource document Collaborative Evaluations by Regional and Specialized Accrediting Agencies (Guidelines and Procedures). Particularly in the case of those ASPA agency members recognized by the US Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the procedures of the accrediting process are virtually identical to those in effect for the regional bodies. The standards are similarly rigorous, comprehensive, and outcome-based, with specific attention directed to the professional or special-purpose curriculum.
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