Accreditation in Higher Education
Accreditation is one of the most complex and confusing issues in higher education. It is also one of the most misused concepts – both intentionally and unintentionally. In its simplest sense, accreditation means validation – a statement by a group of persons who are at least theoretically impartial experts in higher education that a given school or department within a school has been thoroughly investigated and found to be worthy of approval.
The process of accreditation is however a voluntary process which means that no school is required to be accredited. Also accreditation is not a government process as the accrediting agencies are, at least in United States, private agencies and are independent organizations. As mentioned, this is a peculiarly American process. In every other country in the world, the government either operates the colleges and universities or directly gives them the right to grant degrees, so an independent agency does not need to say that a given school is okay.
Coming back to United States, there are hundreds of accrediting agencies, some of which are generally recognized as legitimate while others are not. Also as mentioned earlier there is no need for a school to be accredited. In fact there are a small number of acceptable schools and sometimes departments within schools that are not accredited either by their own choice (since accreditation is a voluntary and often expensive procedure) or because they are too new (all schools were unaccredited at one time) or too experimental (some would say too innovative) for the generally conservative accreditors.
On the other hand, there are also a few less-than-wonderful schools that are legitimately accredited, though it is extremely rare. A much common scenario is where many bad schools claim to be accredited – but such accreditation is always by unrecognized, sometimes nonexistent, accrediting associations, often of their own creation.
Accreditation is a controversial topic in higher education. In fact the last two US secretaries of education stated in no uncertain terms that the accrediting agencies are not doing their jobs, especially with respect to nontraditional schools such as some of the distance-learning agencies. As will also be discussed in the later sections of this report, having accreditation is not the same thing as being licensed, chartered, approved, authorized or recognized.
Introduction to Accreditation
Accreditation is a process of external quality review used by higher education to scrutinize colleges, universities, and higher education programs for quality assurance and quality improvement (Forest, Kinser, p. 29). It is basically a process by which a program or institution is recognized as being in conformity with some formal written agreed upon standard. Another definition of accreditation is “a process by which an institution of postsecondary education evaluates its educational activities, in who or in part, and seeks and independent judgment to confirm that it is substantially achieving its objectives and is generally equal in quality to comparable institutions of post secondary education” (Bogue, Hall, 2003, p. 22).
According to American Psychological Association APA, the accreditation process of is “a process that involves judging the degree to which a program has achieved the goals and objectives”. The Oxford English Dictionary defines accreditation as “the act or process of giving official authorization”. It is noteworthy that the definitions do not refer the level of performance of an individual or an organization. It ironically means that, accreditation could be applied to an organization whose level of performance is inadequate.
Although every state and nation accredits schools and professional programs and publishes lists of approved, certified, recognized or registered institutions, the term accreditation more frequently refers to approval association and accrediting agencies rather than to state approval (Williams cited in Drake, 2003, p. 64).
The accreditation process is one in which, according to Council for Higher Education Accreditation CHEA, ccreditation is “the faculty, administrators, and staff of the institution or academic program conduct a self-study using the accrediting association’s set of expectations about quality as their guide. A team of peers (from within the higher education system that are) selected by the accrediting association reviews the evidence, visits the campus to interview faculty and staff, and writes a report of its assessment” (Asher, 2000, p. 254).
An institution or program seeking accreditation must go through a number of steps stipulated by an accrediting organization. These steps involve a combination of preparation of evidence of accomplishment by the institution or program, scrutiny of these materials by faculty and administrative peers, action to determine the accreditation status by the accrediting organizations.
Of the several beneficial purposes of accreditation, the two considered to be most fundamental are to ensure the quality and to assist in the improvement of the institution or program. Specifically, the accreditation of an institution or program says to the public in general and to institutional constituencies in particular that is has appropriate mission and purposes, resources necessary to achieve those purposes, and a history and record implying that it will continue to achieve, and a history and record implying that it will continue to achieve its purposes. The needs of several constituencies are served when accreditation fulfills its purposes of quality assurance and institutional or program improvement. The general public is served by being assured that the institution or program has been evaluated internally and externally and conforms to general expectations in higher education.
Accreditation benefits students in several wyas. It assures them that an accredited institution has been found to be satisfactory and capable of meeting their needs, facilitates the transfer of credits among institutions, promotes admission to graduate degree programs and serves as a prerequisite, in some cases for entering professions. Institutions also benefit from accreditation. There is first the stimulus for periodic self-evaluation and continuous improvement. Accreditation enables institutions to gain eligibility for themselves and their students in certain programs of governments and private aid to higher education and helps institutions to prevent parochialism by setting expectations that are national in scope. Yet another benefit is the enhanced reputation of an accredited institution, primarily because of the generally high public regard for accreditation (Bogue, Hall, 2003, p. 23).
Accreditation of institutions and programs is ongoing: Initial accreditation is not a guarantee of indefinite accredited status. Periodic review is a fact of life for accredited institutions and programs. Self-accreditation is not an option (Forest, Kinser, 2002, p. 30). The public benefits when it can be assured that the accredited institution is ongoing and explicit activities deemed adequate to enable the institution to improve itself continuously and to made necessary modifications to accommodate changes in knowledge and practice in various fields of study. Accreditation decreases the need for intervention by regulatory agencies because institutions are themselves required to provide for the maintenance of quality (Bogue, Hall, 2003, p. 23).
Accreditation is based on the evaluation of institutional or program performance against a set of minimal standards. There may be, therefore an understandable variation among accredited institutions. However, without accreditation, the degree of variation would be much greater, and the public’s ability to discern the differences between the institutions of adequate quality and those of inadequate quality would be seriously damaged. Without accreditation, the vagaries of reputational studies also would be greatly exacerbated (Bogue, Hall, 2003, p. 23-24).
Usually accreditation and quality assurance in various countries is typically carried out by the government. An exception to this case is United States, where accreditation is carried out by private in-profit organizations designed for this specific purpose. External quality review of higher quality education is a non-governmental exercise in United States.
The word accreditation is often and incorrectly used interchangeably with certification and licensure. Whereas accreditation is a status ascribed to an institution or one of its parts, certification usually applies to an individual or connotes a process that determines that he or she has fulfilled requirements set forth in a particular line of work and may practice in that field of work (Bogue, hall, 2003, p. 22). Licensure is also a term applicable to an individual rather than an institution. Often related and sometime slinked to both accreditation and certification, licensure is the process by which an individual is granted the authority to practice in a particular field. It runs the gamut from vehicle operation to brain surgery, from barbering to flying jumbo jets.
Generally Accepted Accreditation Principles
GAAP is basically an accounting concept i.e. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. These principles are generally accepted: not absolutely, not always, not universally, but generally. The same concept makes as much sense in the world of accreditation: GAAP – Generally Accepted Accreditation Principles. The term was first used informally at the national convention of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers AACRAO in Reno.
In United States, the relevant key decision makers – especially university registrars, admissions officers, corporate human resource officers, and governmental agencies are in near-unanimous agreement. Not everyone calls the concept of GAAP, but the idea is the same: is a school meets certain criteria, its credits or degrees will probably be accepted; if not, they probably won’t be. Following are criteria for GAAP in some countries (Bear, Bear, 2003, p. 15):
Ø For schools based in the United States: accreditation by an accrediting agency recognized by the US Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation CHEA.
Ø For schools in Great Britain and the British Commonwealth: membership in the Association of Commonwealth Universities and a listing in the Commonwealth Universities Yearbook.
Ø For schools in Australia: recognition by the Australian Qualification Framework.
Ø For schools in other countries: a description in the World Education Series (published by Projects in International Education Research PIER, a joint venture of AACRAO and NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, with the participation of the College Board); or a listing in the Countries Series, published by the Australian National Office for Overseas Skills Recognition, NOOSR.
Goals and objectives of accreditation
Accreditation has the following five key features according to Forest and Kinser (2002, p.2002, p. 30-31):
Self-study: Institutions and programs prepare a written summary of performance based on accrediting organizations’ standards
Peer review: Accreditation review is conducted by faculty and administrative peers in the profession. These colleagues review the self-study and serve on visiting teams that review institutions and programs after the self-study is accomplished. Peers make up the majority of members of the accrediting commissions of the accrediting commissions or boards that make judgments about accrediting status.
Site visit: Accrediting organizations normally send a visiting team to review an institution or program. The self-study provides he foundations of the team visit. In addition to the peers described above, teams may include public members i.e. non-academics who have an interest in higher education. All team members are volunteers and are generally not compensated.
Action or judgment by the accrediting organization: Accrediting organizations have commissions that affirm accreditation for new institutions and programs, reaffirm accreditation for ongoing institutions and programs, and deny accreditation to institutions and programs.
Ongoing external review: Institutions and programs continue to be reviewed periodically on cycles that range from a few years to as much as ten years long. They normally prepare a self-study and undergo a site visit each time.
From the stand point of institutional governance, the accreditation process segmented responsibility. It has been criticized for emphasizing the interests of certain programs; for reinforcing the status quo by limiting deviation from conventional practice; for effectually requiring governing boards to spend funds for building, equipment, and staff when it specified faculty-student rations and minimum square footage program operation; and for having standards that tend to be quantitative rather than qualitative.
However, the accreditation process has been higher education’s way of managing itself in the absence of the national ministry of education found in most other nations. And in peculiarly American fashion the federal agency most responsible for education accredited the accrediting groups; thus far and no further (Cohen, 1998, p. 250).