Educational accreditation is a type of quality assurance process under which services and operations of an educational institution or program are evaluated by an external body to determine if applicable standards are met. If standards are met, accredited status is granted by the agency.
In most countries in the world, the function of educational accreditation is conducted by a government organization, such as a ministry of education. In the United States, however, the quality assurance process is independent of government and performed by private membership associations.
A school does not necesarily need to be accredited to operate in the United States. The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) (a non-governmental organization) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education and provide guidelines as well as resources and relevant data regarding these accreditors. Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor CHEA accredit individual institutions.
In the United States, educational accreditation has long been established as a peer review process coordinated by accreditation commissions and member institutions. The federal government began to play a limited role in accreditation in 1952 with reauthorization of the GI Bill for Korean War veterans. The original GI Bill legislation had stimulated establishment of new colleges and universities, including some of dubious quality. The 1952 legislation designated the existing peer review process as the basis for measuring institutional quality; GI Bill eligibility was limited to students enrolled at accredited institutions included on a list of federally recognized accredited institutions published by the U.S. Commissioner of Education.
With the creation of the U.S. Department of Education and under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, the U.S. Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary has determined to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit. There is no similar federal government list of recognized accreditation agencies for primary and secondary schools. There is wide variation among the individual states in the requirements applied to non-public primary and secondary schools.
There are six regional accreditors. They accredit (and therefore include among their membership) nearly all elementary schools, junior high schools, middle schools, high schools, and public and private institutions of higher education that are academic in nature.
There are 52 recognized national accrediting bodies. National accreditors get their name from their common policy of accrediting schools nationwide or even worldwide. Requirements for accreditation vary from each national accreditor according to the specialty. In general terms, the national accreditors accredit post-secondary programs that are vocational, technical and career in nature. Some of these programs offer degrees and some only certificates.
Five of these bodies are listed by the Department of Education as general in nature and national in scope. These are
Regionally accredited schools are predominantly academically oriented, non-profit institutions. Nationally accredited schools are predominantly for-profit and offer vocational, career or technical programs. Every college has the right to set standards and refuse to accept transfer credits. However, if a student has gone to a nationally accredited school it may be particularly difficult to transfer credits (or even credit for a degree earned) if he or she then applies to a regionally accredited college. Some regionally accredited colleges have general policies against accepting any credits from nationally accredited schools, others are reluctant to because regional schools feel that national schools' academic standards are lower than their own or they are unfamiliar with the particular school. There have been lawsuits regarding nationally accredited schools who led prospective students to believe that they would have no problem transferring their credits to regionally accredited schools, most notably Florida Metropolitan University and Crown College, Tacoma, Washington. The U.S. Department of Education has stated, however, that its criteria for recognition of accreditors "do not differentiate between types of accrediting agencies, so the recognition granted to all types of accrediting agencies — regional, institutional, specialized, and programmatic — is identical." However the same letter states that "the specific scope of recognition varies according to the type of agency recognized."
Specialized and professional accreditors are recognized as reputable by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Best practices are shared and developed through affiliation with the Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors. The more visable specialized and professional accreditors include the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation, the American Bar Association (whose accreditation is a prerequisite to sitting for the bar exam in the vast majority of states, the most notable exception being California), the National Architectural Accrediting Board (whose accreditation is a prerequisite to sitting for the architectural licensing exams in most states), the Association of American Medical Colleges for medical schools, The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business for business schools, the American Veterinary Medical Association for schools of veterinary medicine, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology for engineering schools, the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation automotive schools, and HVAC Excellence for Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration (HVACR) programs.
Religious schools may seek regional accreditation or a secular national accreditation, or they have the option of four different specialized agencies, which include
These groups specialize in accrediting theological and religious schools including seminaries and graduate schools of theology, as well as broader-scope universities that 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/profession specific and at times can require technical oversight not provided by the broader accrediting organizations (i.e. the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education).
Despite the widely recognized benefits and accountability of accreditation, some institutions choose, for various reasons, not to participate in an accreditation process or fall short of the required standards. According to the United States Department of Education, it is possible for postsecondary educational institutions and programs to elect not to seek accreditation but nevertheless provide a quality postsecondary education. Yet, other unaccredited schools simply award degrees and diploma without merit for a price.
An ongoing problem within higher education accreditation is the existence of diploma mills and accreditation mills. These organizations exist to grant degrees that appear valid but are offered to individuals without academic course work and give a willing buyer a degree for money. Sometimes both the buyer and seller know this and sometimes a potential student is not aware of the fraud. In some cases a diploma mills and/or its "accreditor" is unrecognized and exists only at a post office box or website owned by the proprietor of the school.
In the United States, unaccredited degrees may not be acceptable for financial aid, civil service or other employment purposes. Criminal penalties sometimes apply should such a degree be presented in lieu of one from an accredited school. The use of unaccredited degree titles is legally restricted or illegal in some jurisdictions. Jurisdictions that have restricted or made illegal the use of credentials from unaccredited schools include Oregon, Michigan, Maine, North DakotaNew Jersey, Washington, Nevada, Illinois, Indiana, and Texas. Many other states are also considering restrictions on unaccredited degree use in order to help prevent fraud.
Some state laws allow authorities to shut down large illegal operations of unaccredited schools or diploma mills. In November 2005, a group of operators in Seattle was caught running several diploma mills. The group was indicted after a Secret Service investigation.
Twenty-one jurisdictions in the USA, such as Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Louisiana, allow exemption from accreditation for certain religious schools. This means that religious schools can grant legal degrees (doctoral degrees, bachelor's degrees etc.) to students, without government oversight. The law in the state of Oregon requires religious exempt colleges to meet certain standards, so there is not a full exemption. According to an article in the Oregon Daily Emrald "[d]egrees from religious exempt schools were used primarily to attain church-related employment", and "employers often did not regard degrees from unaccredited religious exempt colleges on the same level as degrees from accredited institutions". In Virginia an "exempt school must clearly state in its catalogs and promotional materials that it is exempt from the requirements of state regulations and oversight". In Florida, a religious exempt-school has to include "a religious modifier or the name of a religious patriarch, saint, person, or symbol of the church" in the name of the institution, and the institution has to only offer "educational programs that prepare students for religious vocations as ministers, professionals, or laypersons in the categories of ministry, counseling, theology, education, administration, music, fine arts, media communications, or social work" and "each degree title must include a religious modifier that immediately precedes, or is included within, any of the following degrees: Associate of Arts, Associate of Science, Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts, Master of Science, Doctor of Philosophy, and Doctor of Education". The Employer's Guide of South Carolina makes a difference between religious-exempt degrees and degree mills, but occasionally diploma mills have been said to operate as religious universities to avoid laws against diploma mills. Religious exempt degrees are often used in a religious, and not a secular, context. In certain US states - North Dakota, Nevada, Texas, Washington, Maine and New Jersey - it is illegal to include religious-exempt degrees on resumes, letterheads, business cards, advertisements and announcements, while this is legal in other states. In the state of Indiana it is an "incurable deceptive act" for someone to "claim, either orally or in writing, to possess a doctorate degree or use a title, a word, letters, an insignia, or an abbreviation associated with a doctorate degree, unless the individual" has been awarded a doctorate degree from an institution which is accredited by a professional accrediting agency which is recognized, or "a religious seminary, institute, college, or university whose certificates, diplomas, or degrees clearly identify the religious character of the educational program". Accordingly, religious-exempt titles are valid to use in Indiana. Religious modifiers to a Ph.D. could be in Religion or in Metaphysics. Other religious degrees are, for example, Master of Apologetics, Master of Theological Studies, Bachelor of Religion, Doctor of Theology, Doctor of Ministry, Doctor of Biblical Studies, Doctor of Christian Counseling, Doctor of Christian Philosophy, and Doctor of Metaphysical Theology. In September 2005 there were in the state of Washington "48 schools currently offering programs that are religious in nature" and "exempt from authorization under the Degree-granting Institutions Act". Some religious-exempt-schools offer distant, and even online, education, and others offer lengthy degree programs and classes on campus. Rick Walston states in Walston's Guide to Christian Distance Learning that "some very good, legitimate, and well-recognized schools are not accredited."
In much of the world, institutions of higher education are authorized to operate by the government, typically through a Ministry of Education (MOE). The MOE is responsible for ensuring the institutions meet government standards, so in a sense the government serves as an accreditation body, too. For example, in Australia, higher education providers generally need approval of the federal or state governments (or a non-government body to whom this power has been delegated), or an Act of Parliament, depending on the nature of the institution.
In Canada most universities are operated by the provincial governments for their respective provinces. There is no institutional accreditation in Canada. Membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada along with the provincial charter is considered de facto accreditation for not-for-profit universities and university-degree level colleges.
The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany (Kultusministerkonferenz or KMK) was founded in 1948 by an agreement between the states of the Federal Republic of Germany. Among its core responsibilities, the KMK ensures quality development and continuity in tertiary education. Bachelor and Master programs must be accredited in accordance to a resolution of the Kultusministerkonerenz.
The Foundation for the Accreditation of Study Programs in Germany or Accreditation Council (Akkreditierungsrat) was created in a KMK resolution on October 15, 2004. The Accreditation Council certifies accreditation agencies and establishes guidelines and criteria for program accreditation. There are currently seven certified agencies.
The Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualificati is appointed by the Secretary for Education of Education Bureau as the Accreditation Authority and QR Authority under the Qualifications Framework of Hong Kong (HKQF).
Assessment is made with reference to local and internationally recognised standards through a process of peer review. The HKCAAVQ will issue an accreditation report on the outcome of the accreditation activity.
Accreditation is compulsory for all universities in India except those created through an act of Parliament. Without accreditation, "It is emphasized that these fake institutions have no legal entity to call themselves as University/Vishwvidyalaya and to award ‘degrees’ which are not treated as valid for academic/employment purposes." The University Grants Commission Act 1956 explains,
"the right of conferring or granting degrees shall be exercised only by a University established or incorporated by or under a Central Act, or a State Act, or an Institution deemed to be University or an institution specially empowered by an Act of the Parliament to confer or grant degrees. Thus, any institution which has not been created by an enactment of Parliament or a State Legislature or has not been granted the status of a Deemed-to-be-University, is not entitled to award a degree."
Legitimate higher education qualifications in Ireland are placed on, or formally aligned, with the National Framework of Qualifications. This framework was established by the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland in accordance with the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act (1999). It is illegal under the Universities Act (1997) for any body offering higher education services to use the term "university" without the permission of the Minister for Education and Science. It is likewise illegal under the Institutes of Technologies Acts (1992-2006) to use the term "institute of technology" or "regional technology college" without permission.
The Council for Higher Education is, by a 1958 law, the only institution qualified to accredit universities and colleges in Israel. The council acts as a reviewer of the activity of the academic centers in Israel and sets terms and requirements for every degree given.
Accreditation was done by the Lembaga Akreditasi Negara (English: National Accreditation Board), a statutory body created through an act of Parliament, for certificates, diplomas and degree courses provided by private higher educational institutions (defined as institutions providing tertiary or post-secondary education) until 2007 when the body was replaced with the Malaysian Qualifications Agency.
Prior to the enactment of the legislations that provided for the establishment of these bodies, no specific framework for accreditation existed and institutions only required a valid registration status from the Ministry of Education of Malaysia.
The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) is a binational organization formed by treaty in 2003 to independently ensure the quality of higher education in the Netherlands and Flanders by assessing and accrediting programs. As a result of separate legislation in the two jurisdictions, accreditation policies and procedures differ between the two countries.
The Portuguese Agência de Acreditação (state-managed Accreditation Agency) for higher education is, since 2007, responsible for the publication of the national ranking of higher education institutions and degrees.
Within the Bologna process a state agency was set up by the Portuguese Government to offer central and regulated accreditation. Previously, Portugal had used a system of professional accreditation and degree recognition by sector, with a number of associations, Unions and Professional Orders (Ordens Profissionais): the Ordem dos Médicos (for medical doctors), the Ordem dos Engenheiros (for engineers), and the Ordem dos Advogados (for lawyers).
The Sindicato dos Engenheiros Técnicos (for technical engineers), was created as the professional association of technical engineers, who were not full chartered engineers, having as mandatory qualification a simple short-cycle 3-year bachelor degree (bacharelato) awarded by the Portuguese polytechnical institutes and now discontinued since the mid-2000s.
The Associação de Técnicos de Contas (for accounting technicians), the Câmara de Revisores Oficiais de Contas (for financial auditors, similar to Chartered Accountants), and the Sindicato dos Enfermeiros (for nurses) are examples of organizations which were oriented towards professions that at least until the 1990s did not demand a specific academic degree. For example, to be member of the Câmara de Revisores Oficiais de Contas (for financial auditors), candidats needed to have two years of experience and must have a degree in a range of possible area (Economics, Finance, Business Administration, Accounting or Law). Like in other similar international associations (Chartered Accountant), the Câmara de Revisores Oficiais de Contas have very selective examinations.
Some organizations (starting as Associations or Unions) were upgraded later into Ordens like, for example, the Ordem dos Farmacêuticos (for pharmacists), the Ordem dos Arquitectos (for architects), the Ordem dos Biólogos (for biologists), the Ordem dos Economistas (for economists), the Ordem dos Enfermeiros (for nurses), and the Ordem dos Revisores Oficiais de Contas (for Chartered Accountants and financial auditors). In addition, the state through the ministry for higher education, has usually been the central highest accreditation entity, and thus it is illegal to award degrees without government approval.
For many years, there were state-accredited institutions, both public and private, awarding unaccredited degrees by the Ordens. This dubious situation changed in the mid-2000s with the deep reorganization imposed by the Bologna process implementation in Portugal, the creation of the new central state-managed Accreditation Agency and the foundation of many regulated new Ordens covering dozens of professions until then unregulated by this type of professional organization.
In 1999, over 15,000 students enrolled in Portuguese higher learning institutions and newly graduates in the fields of engineering and architecture, were enrolled or were awarded a degree in a non-accredited course. Those students and graduates with no official recognition were not admitted to any Ordem and were unable to develop professional activity in their presumed field of expertise (e.g. architect; chemical, electrical, or civil/structural engineer; lawyer; accountant; and financial auditor, among other professionals). At the same time, only one accredited engineering course was offered by a private university, and over 90% of the accredited courses with recognition in the fields of engineering, architecture, and law were exclusively provided by state-run universities.
In 2007, the compulsory closing of some problematic and unreliable private higher education institutions (like the defunct Independente University and the Moderna University) which in general had been accredited by the state during the boom of private teaching of the 1990s, but usually without providing any accredited degrees in accordance with the requirements of the main Ordens was seen as a remedy of last resort in order to prevent a further loss of credibility among some sectors within the non-public university higher education.
In Russia accreditation/ national recognition is directly overseen by the Education Ministry of Russia. Since 1981, Russia has followed the UNESCO international regulations to ensure Russian institutions and international institutions meet high quality standards. It is illegal for a school to operate without government approval.
The Russian Federation has a three-step recognition system:
It is illegal to falsely claim a degree in South Korea if it does not meet accredited approval. For example, in March 2006 prosecutors in Seoul "broken up a crime ring selling bogus music diplomas from Russia, which helped many land university jobs and seats in orchestras." People who falsely used these degrees were criminally charged.
In the UK it is illegal to offer a qualification that is or might seem to be UK degree unless the awarding body is recognised by the Secretary of State, a Royal Charter or Act of Parliament to grant degrees. Prosecutions under the Education Reform Act are rare, as many unaccredited awarding bodies are based outside UK jurisdiction. It is also worth noting in this context that the Business Names Act 1985 made it an offence for any business in the UK to use the word "university" in its name without the formal approval of the Privy Council.
Private higher (HE) and further education (FE) institutions (here distinguished from the qualifications that they offer) are unregulated, but may choose to become accredited by various non-regulatory bodies such as the British Accreditation Council or the British Council and Accreditation Service for International Colleges in order to demonstrate third-party assessment of the quality of education they offer. The Universities Funding Council, and Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council established in the UK under the 1988 Education Reform Act have responsibility for the public funding of the FE and HE sector.
Prosecutions under legislation other than the Education Reform Act 1988 do occur. In 2004, Thames Valley College in London was prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act for offering degrees from the 'University of North America', a limited liability company set up by themselves in the US with no academic staff and no premises other than a mail forwarding service. (Note that this organization differs from the current University of North America, a non-accredited institution.)