U.S. Regional Accreditation: An Overview
In the United States, accreditation is the primary process for assuring and improving the quality of higher education institutions. Accreditation of nearly 3,000 colleges and universities is carried out through a process known as ‘regional accreditation’: seven commissions operate in six geographic regions of the country through nongovernmental, non-profit voluntary associations. Accreditation is a self-regulatory, peer review process based on rigorous standards. Colleges and universities are judged based on self-evaluations analyzing how well they meet these standards, in light of their mission. Following a review by a team of peers, accrediting commissions determine the accreditation status of the institution and use a variety of means to ensure follow-up as appropriate and further evaluation in the case of substantive change on the part of the institution.
Regional accreditation oversees the quality of research universities; community colleges; liberal arts colleges; state colleges; religiously affiliated institutions; special-purpose institutions in the arts, sciences, and professional fields; military academies; historically black and Hispanic-serving institutions; and tribal colleges. Regionally accredited institutions are public and private, for-profit and not-for-profit, secular and religious, urban and rural, large and small, old and new, traditional and non-traditional. Collectively, they enroll over 17 million students in programs ranging from associate through doctoral level degrees. The quality of these colleges and universities – and the talent they have contributed to develop regional accreditation over the decades – means that regional accreditation is highly regarded around the world. In the United States, each of the regional commissions is recognized by the United States Secretary of Education and by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.
Regional accreditation is overseen by a professional staff for each commission, totaling slightly over 100 full-time employees nationally. Annually the work of accreditation is carried out by approximately 3500 volunteers who serve on visiting teams and on the commissions. These volunteers include college and university presidents, academic officers, faculty, and campus experts in finance, student services and library/technology. At least one of every seven Commissioners is a public member.
Regional accreditation traces its roots to 1885. Today’s enterprise is based on decades of experience and refinement, both leading and reflecting the development of American higher education. Today’s standards go beyond inputs and processes – for example, Do students have access to learning resources and are they using them? – to focus increasingly on outcomes: How well are students gaining skills of finding, evaluating, and using information? Over the past decade, regional accreditation commissions have been leaders in helping colleges and universities develop trustworthy and useful ways to understand what and how their students are learning and use the results for improvement.
Accreditation of our country’s large, diverse, and responsive system of higher education is strengthened by its regional nature. Regional associations keep their commissions close to the conditions, needs, and challenges of higher education in various parts of the country. Because accreditation is a process of self-regulation, participation by the membership strengthens the process. Thus, the greater opportunity for involvement offered through smaller-unit regional accrediting organizations builds understanding and commitment among college and university membership. Multiple approaches to common problems strengthen regional accreditation through cross-fertilization among the commissions.
The regions of regional accreditation are tied together in several ways to form a coordinated system. The executives and commission chairs – known collectively as C-RAC [the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions]– meet regularly. C-RAC has developed common statements, policies, and training materials in areas such as distance learning and assessment of student learning outcomes. Biennially, the professional staffs of all commissions meet to share good practice and plan for the future. Further, the sharing of volunteers inter-regionally as team members and team chairs, and the mobility of presidents, provosts, and faculty members ensures that common understandings develop and are applied. The effectiveness of these efforts is demonstrated by the ease with which students transfer and pursue higher degrees in regions beyond their own, and the common acceptance of ‘regional accreditation’ as a mark of quality by employers and the public.
American higher education is known for its diversity. The Economist’s 2005 global survey of higher education praised the American system, noting “A sophisticated economy needs a wide variety of universities pursuing a wide variety of missions [and] the more that the state's role contracts, the more educational variety will flourish.” Regional accreditation has provided the conditions and framework under which diversity – and quality – have flourished.
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