Higher Education Accreditation in the United States

Accreditation of higher education institutions in the United States has traditionally been a peer review process, coordinated and regulated by member institutions (colleges, universities, etc.) as well as accreditation commissions and committees. While accreditation of higher education has existed for most of the 20th century, it became a more integral part of the higher education industry in 1952 with the reauthorization of the GI Bill (Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) which covered the cost of tuition and living expenses for veterans of the Korean War who desired to attend college, high school or pursue other vocational education options.

To meet demand for the influx of new students spawned by reauthorization of the GI Bill, many new colleges and universities were established; but veterans as well as the federal government quickly discovered that some of the new institutions offered subpar training and education programs. In an effort to ensure that veterans received a high quality education and that tax payer dollars were not wasted, the federal government restricted GI Bill eligibility to students enrolled at colleges, universities and higher education institutions included on a list of federally recognized and accredited institutions. This list was published annually by the U.S. Commissioner of Education. While the U.S. Government did not set new accreditation standards, they set the existing peer review process as the basis for determining institutional quality (as well as eligibility for GI Bill recipients).

While neither the U.S. Department of Education or Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are directly involved in the accreditation process, both organizations recognize which higher education accreditation agencies are reputable, and provide guidelines, resources and information about each accreditor.

Since the establishment of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in 1965, the U.S. Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of reputable higher education accrediting agencies each year. In turn, these agencies publish a list of accredited higher education institutions as well as accredited programs. There are two types of higher education accrediting agencies: regional and national. Both regional and national accrediting agencies are accountable to the Department of Education, but they differ in their level of oversight. Regional agencies only accredit schools and colleges within a specific geographic area or region. As such they have greater oversight over their institutions. National agencies have less oversight over the institutions they monitor and are able to accredit institutions throughout the United States, and sometimes in other countries. Within the sphere of American higher education, regional accrediting agencies are considered to be more reputable than national accrediting agencies. As such, it is usually in students’ best interest to attend a regionally accredited school if they can.

Regional accreditors

The United States is divided into six geographic regions and for each their is a single regional accreditor. Each regional accreditor is responsible for accrediting the majority (if not all) of the public and private elementary, secondary and post-secondary education institutions located within the region it serves.

The following chart shows the 6 regional accrediting agencies for higher education institutions in the United States along with the states they serve.

Regional Accreditor

Region/Geographic Area

Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools

New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands

New England Association of Schools and Colleges

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont

North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.

Western Association of Schools and Colleges

California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands.

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools

Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas.
Each of the regional agencies in the above chart has full accrediting authority for postsecondary education institutions and colleges for the states listed. However, if you were to compare the list above to that published by the U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education Accreditation you’d notice a slight discrepancy. The list above shows six agencies, while the list published by the U.S. Department of Education and CHEA shows eight. This is simply a matter of classification. A few of the agencies listed by the U.S. Department of Education are subdivisions within the regional accrediting agencies presented above.

National accreditors

There are 52 national accrediting bodies recognized in the United States. Where regional accreditors are based on geographic area, national accreditors typically cover a specific program type or professional area of training. For example, The Accreditation Commission for Acupunture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM) has authority to accredit only Acupunture and Oriental Medicine schools and programs. There are 5 national accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education that are general in nature and national in scope. These include: National accreditors that cover a specific program or type of professional training are often referred to as Programmatic accreditors. There 47 programmatic accreditors in the United States recognized by the Department of Education. These include:
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE-ADA)
  • Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
  • Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (ACAOM)
  • Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE)
  • Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
  • Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
  • Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools
  • Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC)
  • American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE)
  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT/COAMFTE) Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
  • American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS) Council for Accreditation (CFA)
  • American Association of Nurse Anesthetists Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (CoA-NA)
  • American Bar Association (ABA) Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar
  • American Board of Funeral Service Education (ABFSE) Committee on Accreditation
  • American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) Division of Accreditation
  • American Council for Construction Education (ACCE) Board of Trustees
  • American Culinary Federation (ACF) Accrediting Commission
  • American Dental Association (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation
  • American Institute of Certified Planners/Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning Planning Accreditation Board (PAB)
  • American Library Association (ALA) Committee on Accreditation (CoA)
  • American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE)
  • American Optometric Association (AOA) Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE)
  • American Osteopathic Association Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation
  • American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) Council on Podiatric Medical Education (CPME)
  • American Psychological Association (APA) Committee on Accreditation (CoA)
  • American Society for Microbiology American College of Microbiology
  • American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB)
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology
  • American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Division of Education and Research
  • Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE)
  • Association for Computing Machinery Accreditation Committee
  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
  • Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME)
  • Council on Accreditation for Recreation, Park Resources and Leisure Services, sponsored by National Recreation & Park Assn. (NRPA)
  • Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Commission on English Language Program Accreditation
  • Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation
  • Commission on Opticianry Accreditation
  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)
  • Council on Aviation Accreditation (CAA)
  • Council on Chiropractic Education (CCE) Commission on Accreditation
  • Council on Education for Public Health
  • Council on Naturopathic Medical Education
  • Council on Occupational Education
  • Council on Rehabilitation Education (CORE) Commission on Standards and Accreditation
  • Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Office of Social Work Accreditation and Educational Excellence
  • International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education (IACBE)
  • Joint Review Committee on Education Programs in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT)
  • Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT)
  • Liaison Committee on Medical Education
  • Midwifery Education Accreditation Council
  • Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education
  • National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS)
  • National Accrediting Commission of Cosmetology Arts and Sciences (NACCAS)
  • National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB)
  • National Association of Industrial Technology (NAIT)
  • National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health Council on Accreditation
  • National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) Commission on Accreditation
  • National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD) Commission on Accreditation
  • National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) Commission on Accreditation and Commission on Community/Junior College Accreditation
  • National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation (COPRA)
  • National Association of Schools of Theatre (NAST) Commission on Accreditation
  • National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE)
  • National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council
  • National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC)
  • Planning Accreditation Board
  • Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System (PCSAS)
  • Society of American Foresters (SAF)
  • State Bar of California Committee of Bar Examiners[17]
  • Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC)

Regional accreditation vs. national accreditation

While not always the case, regionally accredited schools and colleges are typically academic, non-profit education institutions. In contrast, the majority of nationally accredited schools are for-profit and provide vocational oriented career and technical training programs.

One of the most salient differenced between nationally and regionally accredited programs is a student’s ability to transfer from one higher education institution to another. Students who have attended or earned a degree from a nationally accredited school may find it difficult, if not impossible, to transfer their credits to a regionally accredited school. A study conducted by the U.S. Government of Accountability Office (GAO) in 2005 indicated that nearly 85% of all U.S. schools and colleges, when considering admission of a transfer student, take into consideration whether or not the previous school the student attended was regionally accredited. Many colleges have now established policies that the will only accept credits earned at other regionally accredited institutions. When asked why they would not accept credits from nationally accredited institions, regionally accredited colleges responded that nationally acredited institutions have less stringent standards (especially when it comes to hiring qualified faculty).

If you plan on attending a nationally accredited school and then transferring to a regionally accredited college, you’ll want to make sure that the college you plan on attending will accept credits from a nationally accredited school.

Many people are under the impression that you can tell whether or not an education institution is accredited by their name and/or the programs they offer. While this may be true in some instances, it isn’t always. Generally, a school’s name and their degrees do not indicate the accreditation status or type of accreditation the school holds. Always, check a school’s website or with an admissions counselor to verify accreditation status before enrolling in a program.

Professional and specialized accreditors

Several professional and specialized accrediting agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education. These agencies develop, share and apply a best practices approach to accreditation through affiliation with the Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors. Some of the more popular professional accreditors include:
  • Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
  • American Bar Association
  • American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation
  • American Veterinary Medical Association
  • Association of American Medical Colleges
  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business
  • National Architectural Accrediting Board
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