Last Updated: 03/27/2024

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Accreditation is defined in multiple ways in the learn-and-work ecosystem. The term is used to describe quality assurance processes in the education sector as well as in the business/industry sector. Because the term is used in these two contexts, there is often a misunderstanding of what accreditation means among both sectors.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, accreditation is the process of assessment meant to improve academic quality and institutional accountability by an established set of standards to ensure a basic level of quality.

  • Accreditation covers both the initial and ongoing approval of an educational institution or program.
  • Entire schools or institutions can be accredited (referred to as institutional accreditation), as can individual schools, programs, or departments (referred to as specialized or programmatic accreditation). Accreditation can be conducted on the national, state, or private organizational levels.
  • The accrediting agency establishes an agreed-on set of standards, evaluates organizations or institutions, and then re-evaluates the provider on a set schedule—typically, every 5 or 10 years.  

In the business/industry sector, accreditation often refers to the independent, third-party evaluation of a conformity assessment body (such as a certification body, inspection body, or testing laboratory) against recognized standards. The U.S. Conformity Assessment System: 3rd Party Conformity Assessment features four approaches: 

  • Third-party Testing. This may occur at the end of the design or production cycle, when an independent testing laboratory takes the necessary steps to determine that one or more characteristics of an object comply with the appropriate technical standards and requirements. Testing laboratories are qualified as independent in that they have no interest in the person or organization that provides the object for assessment or any user interests in that object. Testing also can be performed by a first party or a second party and is the most commonly used conformity assessment activity.
  • Third-party Inspection. A series of examinations of a product design, product, process, or installation that demonstrates its conformity to specific requirements. It is performed by an independent inspection body. Third-party inspection bodies typically inspect a wide range of functions (e.g., products, services, materials, installations, plant processes, work processes) and parameters (e.g., quality, quantity, safety, fitness for use). Inspection also can be done by a first party or a second party.
  • Certification/Registration. Third-party attestation that specified requirements pertaining to a product, person, process, or management system have been met. The certification of management systems is sometimes referred to as registration. In addition to being conducted by an independent party, certification often involves an element of ongoing surveillance. Once something is certified as compliant, it may be subject to continuing verification by the certifier both before and after it reaches the market.
  • Accreditation. This is a statement from an accreditation body that specified requirements related to conformity assessment bodies have been met and the accredited body is competent to perform certain functions. Accreditation bodies conduct evaluations based on internationally recognized criteria: for inspection bodies, ISO/IEC 17020:1998; for certification bodies, ISO/IEC 17021 (Management Systems), ISO/IEC 7065 (Product Certification); and ISO/IEC 17024:2004 (Personnel Certification). The accreditation bodies themselves demonstrate their competence by adhering to the international criteria specified in ISO/IEC 17011. They also may be subject to peer review performed by regional and international accreditation organizations. Testing laboratories, certification bodies, and inspection bodies may choose to be accredited in order to demonstrate their competence to clients and other stakeholders (e.g., manufacturers, suppliers, users, governmental and regulatory agencies). Choosing to be accredited may also give these  assessment bodies a competitive advantage, especially in high-risk sectors, and improve the recognition of their assessment results internationally

In the business/industry sector, accreditation of hospitals and health care services is an important component of quality assurance.

  • Hospital accreditation is “a self-assessment and external peer assessment process used by health care organizations to accurately assess their level of performance in relation to established standards and to implement ways to continuously improve.”
  • Hospital accreditation is a voluntary ranking and assessment program that gauges hospital safety, staff competency, and overall quality of patient care.
  • Accreditation is typically granted or denied by independent accrediting agencies unaffiliated with either the hospital or any sort of official government body. These agencies include:
    • Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO)
    • National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA)
    • American Medical Accreditation Program (AMAP)
    • American Accreditation HealthCare Commission/Utilization Review Accreditation Commission (AAHC/URAC)
    • Accreditation Association for Ambulatory HealthCare (AAAHC).

Ecosystem Relationship

Accreditation establishes principles of quality assurance and accountability for credential providers, consumers of services, and policymakers in the learn-and-work ecosystem. Extensive processes are in place in education institution accreditation, conformity assessment in business/industry, and accreditation of hospital and health care services. In education, accreditation is required for eligibility for federal assistance. 


  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities: A nonprofit corporation, NWCCU is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) to accredit institutions of higher education in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and British Columbia, along with other geographic areas. NWCCU recognizes higher education institutions for performance, integrity, and quality to merit the confidence of the educational community and the public. This is a voluntary, non-governmental, self-regulatory process of quality assurance and institutional improvement. Accreditation or pre-accreditation by NWCCU also qualifies institutions and enrolled students for access to Title IV federal funds to support teaching, research, and student financial aid. 
  • The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) is an institutional accreditor recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. MSCHE requires holistic evaluation of all aspects of the institution, including modes of instruction. Everything done in the name of the institution, including all academic programs and services, fall within its scope of accreditation. MSCHE accredits degree-granting institutions with at least one postsecondary educational program of at least one academic year. 
  • Commission on Dental Accreditation, established by the American Dental Association, ensures the quality of graduates from programs in oral medicine, dental hygiene, dental anesthesiology, and many others.
  • Examples of accreditation bodies serving the business/industry sector include:


Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (n.d.). Accreditation and Recognition. Council for Higher Education Accreditation. 

Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (n.d.). Accreditation and Recognition. Regional Accrediting Organizations. 

Hospital Accreditation | The Joint Commission

Higher Education Accreditation in the United States | K12 Academics

U.S. Department of Education. (2022, September 14). Accreditation in the United States. U.S. Department of Education.

Wikipedia. (2022, September 8). Accreditation. Wikipedia.,testing


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