Accreditation in higher education was the main reason the United States Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) was formed. Higher-education experts spent three years, from 1993–96, establishing a national agency that would be devoted to issues of accreditation of higher education. CHEA replaced the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA), which had existed from 1975 ...
Accreditation in higher education was the main reason the United States Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) was formed. Higher-education experts spent three years, from 1993–96, establishing a national agency that would be devoted to issues of accreditation of higher education. CHEA replaced the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA), which had existed from 1975 through 1993.
Through the process of creating CHEA, many questions were asked and answered. For example, a working definition of accreditation had to be found. Accreditation, it was decided, is a voluntary process. Institutions and learning programs decide whether they wish to offer accreditation.
Accreditation is meant to ensure that educational institutions and study programs will be held accountable for providing quality education. This is achieved through a constant process of review and evaluation by experts in the field of higher education. By offering accreditation, a given educational institution or study program indicates that it meets minimum standards of academic excellence.
Accreditation is not meant to be used as a method of ranking or comparing institutions. The review process for accreditation is carried out by unpaid volunteers -- administrators and instructors affiliated with accredited programs or institutions. The accreditation is valid for a limited period of time and must be renewed. Accreditation is, in general, valid from 5 to 10 years in the United States.
The Higher Education Act is a federal law that was passed in 1965. This law allows Congress to add provisions that affect higher education. In the early 1990s, provisions to this law required accrediting bodies to apply more rigid standards of accreditation regarding the default rates of student loans. Later that decade, the law provided that accreditation standards be tightened in regard to assessment measures for student achievement. There is an ongoing issue in relation to accreditation regarding government control versus the autonomy of educational institutions. States may create laws that govern the operation of higher learning institutions, and many do so. The extent of this type of legislation of higher education varies greatly depending upon individual states.
There are two types of accreditation for higher-learning institutions and programs. Sometimes, the institution is accredited as a whole while in other cases, a specific course of study offered by a particular institution is accredited.
Two organizations bear responsibility for reviewing and approving accreditation bodies. The United States Department of Education (DOE) is responsible for the supervision of national programs and for distributing federal funds for educational purposes. If the DOE approves an accrediting body, the institution this body represents becomes eligible for federal funding, and its students eligible for financial help. The other organization responsible for reviewing and approving accreditation bodies is the CHEA. The CHEA is a non-profit, private, non-governmental organization that serves higher education institutions within the United States. The CHEA had 3,000 member institutions as of 2004. The members of CHEA are active in defining standards by which accreditation bodies might be approved. CHEA identifies worthy review boards through its approval of these bodies. CHEA also acts as a channel through which the public can receive information about accreditation and accreditation issues.
Accreditation for higher education offers an assessment of a student's academic background for a number of purposes. These include admission to graduate programs at the master's or doctoral level and transferring credits to another institution of learning. Another area is determining eligibility for such benefits as research grants, scholarships, internships, federal/state financial assistance and funding or for licensing or certification in a specific profession. Accreditation can furthermore help ascertain a person's suitability for employment after studying at a specific institution or after completion of an accredited program.
The standards of good practice followed by the United States accreditation bodies are shared by some international higher-education organizations such as the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and the Association of International Educators (NAFSA). There is a high level of cooperation between these bodies. The United States also has an agency for international cooperation of this sort: the National Council on the Evaluation of Foreign Educational Credentials.
In Europe, the review and approval process of educational achievement is regulated by law. In general, this is done at a national level, with each country having its own system of higher education. Higher-education institutions receive automatic approval for offering accreditation. These European institutes of higher learning have a great deal of latitude regarding standards for and the provision of accreditation.