Accreditation in the United States was developed as a means to protect health and safety and to serve the public interest. Communities were growing quickly, and quality standards needed to be set for organizations meeting public needs, such as health care and education. In the 1800s, higher education was gaining ground in the United States, but there were few standards in place to determine the educational quality of an institution and distinguish one school from the next. Accreditation of colleges and universities evolved because students and school officials needed a process to define which campuses met traditionally held standards of educational quality. There was also a growing need to develop national standards for the transfer of credits between foreign institutions and U.S. schools.
Some of the first accrediting agencies in the country were regional ones formed in the 1880s. Accreditation then began to evolve along with the growth of peer review between institutions and accrediting agencies and the advancement of regulation and federal and state legislation. The development of regional standards in quality was the first natural step in the progression of accreditation. Later, national accreditation organizations were developed to set up minimum standards of quality throughout the country.
In 1912, to address the need for national standards, 23 private career schools created the National Association of Accredited Commercial Schools, now the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. ACICS, one of the first national accrediting bodies in the United States, is still one of the most respected and accredits more than 800 institutions in the United States and abroad, totaling a student population of about 700,000, according to its website.
In 1918, the American Council on Education (ACE) was founded to include more schools with varying academic programs and improve the effectiveness of the accreditation process. The ACE still focuses on inclusion of all types of schools in the accreditation process, and its member institutions enroll about 80 percent of all college students today.
During the ’30s, accreditation became common in the United States and was mainly organized and overseen by the accrediting agencies themselves. Then, when the GI Bill was developed at the end of World War II, the government began funding the education of military veterans. The federal government started to depend on accreditation to determine which schools should receive veteran money. Much of this funding would be applied to education in a particular trade or professional area, so there was an increased need for the clear evaluation of professional and specialized schools on a national scale. According to the ACICS website, new accrediting bodies were formed to create national standards for specialized and professional educational programs. Accrediting agencies such as the National Commission on Accrediting (NCA) and the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commissions of Higher Education (FRACHE) were formed to meet this need.
In 1952, near the end of the Korean War, the government passed another measure to provide veterans with educational funding. With the Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act, Congress enacted an educational assistance program similar to the GI Bill and also established a requirement that the U.S. secretary of education publish a list of recognized accreditation agencies. This fueled the need for the development of an organization that could provide comprehensive assessment of the quality of accreditation agencies.
In 1996 that organization—the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA)—was replaced by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Today, CHEA serves as the primary authority to Congress and the Department of Education on higher education accreditation and the quality of accrediting agencies. So if CHEA does not approve the standards and methodology of an accrediting agency, it will not be included in the U.S. Department of Education’s list of recognized agencies. CHEA also serves as a source to the general public and international audiences on anything related to accreditation in the U.S.
According to CHEA At a Glance (pdf), it’s the largest education membership organization in the United States and includes approximately 3,000 colleges and universities. CHEA members also include 60 institutional and specialized accrediting agencies. The organization is overseen by a board of college and university presidents, institutional representatives and members of the public. CHEA serves as a national resource on facts and current issues in accreditation quality assurance and provides a forum for discussion about emerging topics in accreditation. The organization often enacts projects centered on strengthening the effectiveness of accreditation to better serve public interest and also mediates disputes between member organizations and institutions. CHEA keeps an up to date database of all of its accredited institutions and programs.