National Accrediting Organizations (Programs) & Specialized Accreditors In Higher Education

Last Updated: 04/01/2024

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Overview

In higher education, accreditation covers both the initial and ongoing approval of an educational institution or program. Accreditation can be conducted on the national, state, or private organization level. The accrediting agency establishes an agreed-on set of standards. The agency evaluates organizations or institutions. The agency re-evaluates the provider on a set schedule; for example, often every 5 or 10 years. Entire institutions can be accredited—as well as individual schools, programs, or departments. In the latter case, the process is referred to as specialized or programmatic accreditation. 

Specialized accreditation processes are similar to overall accreditation processes; the main difference is the accreditors are examining a specialized program for specific standards. When institutions seek specialized accreditation of a program, accreditors examine several key components. These include the length of the program, whether or not the institution as a whole is accredited, the institution’s primary educational offerings or activities, whether students are currently enrolled, whether its programs are meant to lead to employment, whether the program is offered at a recognized or accredited institution or training facility (teaching hospitals are included in this), and whether the coursework is relevant to the program.

There are 52 national accrediting bodies in the U.S., 10 of which are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education: 

  1. Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
  2. Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
  3. Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
  4. Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
  5. Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA)
  6. Council on Occupational Education (COE)
  7. Association for Biblical Higher Education, Commission on Accreditation
  8. Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, Accreditation Commission
  9. Association of Institutions of Jewish Studies
  10. New York State Board of Regents, and the Commissioner of Education
  11. Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission

The national accreditors include a variety of religious, professional, and vocational accreditors. They get their name from their common policy of accrediting schools nationwide, sometimes even worldwide. Requirements for accreditation vary from each national accreditor according to the specialty.

The national accreditors generally fall within three groups:

  • Those that accredit academic programs leading to a degree.
    • The major national accreditors for academic programs include the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) for nationally accredited distant learning institutions, and the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.
  • Those that accredit vocational programs leading to preparation for a career.
    • Accreditation bodies for institutions that focus on developing career-oriented skills include the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT), Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology, Council on Occupational Education.
  • Those that offer specialized and professional accreditation as an add-on to other accreditation.
    • The most visible of the specialized and professional accreditors are the American Dental Association; the Commission on Dental Accreditation; the American Bar Association (its accreditation is a prerequisite to sitting for the bar exam in all states except California); the Association of American Medical Colleges for medical schools; and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business for business schools.

Religious schools may seek regional accreditation or a secular national accreditation. They also have the option of four different specialized agencies, which include the Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS), Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS), Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE), and Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). These groups specialize in accrediting theological and religious schools, including seminaries and graduate schools of theology, as well as traditional colleges and universities which teach from a religious viewpoint and may require students and/or faculty to subscribe to a statement of faith.

The remainder of the accrediting organizations are formed by groups of professional, vocational, or trade schools whose programs are industry- or profession-specific. These programs sometimes require technical oversight not provided by the broader accrediting organizations (e.g., the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education).

Most colleges and universities in the U.S. are accredited by institutional accreditors, formerly known as regional accreditors. Some critics of national accrediting have questioned the quality of national accreditors’ standards, and cast doubt on whether credits from nationally accredited institutions should transfer to institutionally accredited institutions.

Relationship to Ecosystem

National and specialized accrediting organizations play a major role in the quality assurance and accountability components of the learn-and-work ecosystem. They accredit academic programs leading to degrees, vocational programs leading to preparation for a career, and those that offer specialized and professional accreditation as an add-on to other accreditation.

Examples

The Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) is an accreditor of distance education programs from secondary schools to doctoral programs. It can accredit any and all distance education programs across the U.S. and internationally. The eligibility criteria for DEAC are similar to those for other national accreditors. The criteria stipulate that the accredited unit be (1) a majority distance education provider, (2) properly licensed, #(3) in legal operation for two years (4) financially sound, and (5) of sound reputation. It must also have had students enrolled for at least 12 months.

The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges is a private, nonprofit accreditor of postsecondary education, specifically for degree and non-degree granting programs in occupational, trade, and technical careers.

The Council on Occupational Education accredits career and technical colleges and programs. It accredits only those programs and schools that offer credentials no higher than an applied associate degree and have a campus-based instructional model.

The Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training accredits continuing education and training through a peer-reviewed process. It includes nontraditional pathways such as Intensive English programs, vocational colleges, trade and professional associations, corporate training departments, religious societies, and personal and professional development organizations.

The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) is a private, nonprofit, independent accrediting agency for health education programs. ABHES is both an institutional and specialized accreditor, meaning it can accredit an entire institution (as long as its activity is 70 percent health education) and individual health programs.

The American Bar Association (ABA) is responsible for law school and paralegal program accreditation across the U.S.

The American Osteopathic Association (AOA COCA) is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an accreditor of colleges of osteopathic medicine. It can be both an institutional and specialized accreditor, for entire institutions or for individual programs.

References

Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (n.d.). Accreditation and Recognition. Council for Higher Education Accreditation. https://www.chea.org/about-accreditation 

Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (n.d.). Accreditation and Recognition. Regional Accrediting Organizations. https://www.chea.org/regional-accrediting-organizations 

K-12academics: https://www.k12academics.com/education-assessment-evaluation/accreditation/national-accreditors

U.S. Department of Education. (2022, September 14). Accreditation in the United States. U.S. Department of Education. https://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/accreditation_pg2.html#U.S.

Wikipedia. (2022, September 8). Accreditation. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accreditation#:~:text=Accreditation%20is%20the,testing 

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