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What Is Accreditation?

Accreditation in the United States is a process by which institutions of higher learning are evaluated for educational quality. All quality online MBA programs will have been approved by a recognized accreditation agency. In the U.S., accreditation is a nongovernmental, nonprofit process, and accreditation is meant to foster peer review. Accreditation agencies are organizations dedicated to academics and are often formed by colleges and universities themselves. Through accreditation, schools have the chance to take a look at their own programs and communicate with accreditation agencies about what works and what could be improved. According to An Overview of U.S. Accreditation (pdf) by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), accreditation is a means to ensure academic quality; give deserving schools access to federal funds; provide students, employers and other private sector individuals with confidence in accredited schools; and ease transfer of credits between schools of equal quality.

How It Works

Any school seeking accreditation must first apply for institutional accreditation, which is accreditation of all programs in an entire college or university. Then, an institution may also choose to apply for specialized, or programmatic, accreditation to gain extra recognition for the quality of a particular program. Some schools, such as trade and professional schools, need to seek out only programmatic accreditation because they specialize in just one area. Schools choose to apply for either regional or national accreditation. Regional standards are developed by schools in six sections of the country, while national accreditation standards are meant to represent the minimum standards of quality required for accreditation in the United States. Many online schools are nationally accredited, while accredited online MBA programs offered by brick and mortar schools will usually be regionally accredited. Both types of accreditation are approved by the U.S. Department of Education, but each school will have its own requirements as to what types of accreditation it accepts as transfer credits, so it is wise to look into those specifications before beginning any accredited online MBA program.

To become accredited, schools must apply with an accrediting agency. Accreditation agencies have been formed to act as vehicles to facilitate the process of educational quality evaluation. To be legitimate, an accrediting agency must follow standards that have been laid out by the U.S. Department of Education, available at Ed.gov. Although the U.S. Department of Education does not oversee or regulate accreditation, the secretary of education is required by law to keep a list of accrediting agencies that he or she deems to be reliable authorities on the evaluation of educational quality. Any accrediting agency that is not on that list is not recognized in the United States, and schools accredited by agencies that are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education will not be seen as accredited by academic institutions or employers.

The process of accreditation is rigorous. Common steps are outlined by the Department of Education at Ed.gov. The first step is self-study. The administrators of the school or program in question will consider the educational standards outlined by the accreditation agency. The school administrators will prepare a report detailing how they believe their academic programs hold up to the outlined standards. In communication with the accreditation agency, it may be determined that particular aspects of an academic program may need to be changed before a school is prepared to go through the rest of the evaluation. Once the school administration believes it has met the standards, a team from the accrediting agency will conduct an on-site evaluation of the institution. The accrediting agency will then take into account both the self and on-site evaluation to determine whether a school will gain accreditation. After receiving accreditation, the school will be monitored for a specified amount of time to verify that it is continuing to uphold the standards. Schools will also go through periodic reevaluations, during which the accrediting agency conducts a thorough investigation to ensure that a school is maintaining the same, if not higher, levels of educational quality.

Accreditation in the United States functions according to a common set of academic values and beliefs. According to CHEA, these beliefs are:

  • Higher education institutions have the primary responsibility for academic quality; colleges and universities are the leaders and the key sources of authority in academic matters.
  • Institutional mission is central to judgments of academic quality.
  • Institutional autonomy is essential to sustaining and enhancing academic quality.
  • Academic freedom flourishes in an environment of academic leadership of institutions.
  • The higher education enterprise and our society thrive on decentralization and diversity of institutional purpose and mission.

These beliefs represent the fact that accreditation in the United States has been developed by schools, for schools. Accreditation is meant to be a democratic and peer-review process, and educational quality decisions are not meant to be dictated by a central government, but rather left up to the academic community.