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Educational Accreditation

In the United States, schools and colleges voluntarily seek accreditation from nongovernmental bodies. There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized.

Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western). The regional associations are independent of one another, but they cooperate extensively and acknowledge one another’s accreditation. Several national associations focus on particular kinds of institutions (for example, trade and technical colleges, and religious colleges and universities). An institutional accrediting agency evaluates an entire educational organization in terms of its mission and the agency’s standards or criteria. It accredits the organization as a whole. Besides assessing formal educational activities, it evaluates such things as governance and administration, financial stability, admissions and student services, institutional resources, student learning, institutional effectiveness, and relationships with internal and external constituencies.

A specialized accrediting body evaluates particular units, schools, or programs within an organization. Specialized accreditation, also called program accreditation, is often associated with national professional associations, such as those for engineering, medicine, and law, or with specific disciplines, such as business, teacher education, psychology, or social work.

The North Central Association

The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools was founded in 1895 for the purpose of establishing close relations between the colleges and secondary schools of the region. Throughout its history, the Association has been committed to the improvement of education at all levels through evaluation and accreditation. Today, the Association is a membership organization of colleges and schools in nineteen states (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming), Department of Defense schools, and the schools and colleges in sovereign U.S. tribal nations within the nineteen states. The Association controls the use of its name, logo, and intellectual property.

Two independent corporations also hold membership in the Association. The Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (CASI), headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, accredits schools offering education at the kindergarten through twelfth-grade levels as well as non-degree-granting postsecondary schools. CASI works extensively through state committees throughout the region. The Higher Learning Commission, located in Chicago, accredits degree-granting organizations of higher education. The two Commissions are legally empowered to conduct accrediting activities for educational organizations.

The Higher Learning Commission

In June 2000, the Higher Learning Commission adopted new statements of mission, vision, values, and strategic priorities. The Commission’s mission statement is succinct, yet directive:

Serving the common good by assuring and advancing the quality of higher learning.

The Commission’s work is guided by the core values of quality, integrity, innovation, diversity, inclusiveness, service, collaboration, and learning, each of which is of equal weight and importance. The Commission’s vision is to be known for its distinctive strengths of integrity, flexibility, creativity, responsiveness, and risk-taking, and for its commitment to work for the common good of society. Visit the Commission’s Web site for additional information on the mission, vision, values, and strategic priorities.

Commission Programs and Services

The Commission offers an extensive array of programs and services.

  • Each affiliated organization is assigned a Commission staff liaison who provides assistance, monitors the organization, and offers other types of counsel.
  • To inform all of its constituencies, the Commission publishes in print and electronically a variety of materials, including the Handbook of Accreditation, which describes the policies and procedures of the accreditation process; the Exchanges newsletter; and various other documents and articles.
  • The Commission offers an extensive program on self study, evaluation, and institutional improvement at its Annual Meeting held each spring in Chicago; it publishes a Collection of Papers on Self-Study and Institutional Improvement, an annual volume of papers from the meeting.
  • The Commission’s Web site provides information about the Commission, its staff, its policies, and its programs.
Forms of Affiliation

Colleges and universities are affiliated with the Commission in one of two ways: by gaining and maintaining accredited status, which carries membership in the Commission and in the Association, or by gaining and maintaining candidate status, which is a limited-term, pre-accredited status. Currently, nearly a thousand organizations are affiliated with the Commission.

The Evaluation Process

The Commission provides two programs for maintaining accredited status: the Program to Evaluate and Advance Quality (PEAQ) and the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP).

PEAQ employs a five-step comprehensive evaluation process to determine continued accredited status.

  • The organization engages in a self-study process for approximately two years and prepares a report of its findings in accordance with Commission expectations.
  • The Commission sends an evaluation team of Consultant-Evaluators to conduct a comprehensive visit for continued accreditation and to write a report containing the team’s recommendations.
  • The documents relating to the comprehensive visit are reviewed by a Readers Panel or, in some situations, a Review Committee.
  • The IAC takes action on the Readers Panel’s recommendation. (If a Review Committee reviewed the visit, the Review Committee takes action.)
  • The Board of Trustees validates the work of IAC or a Review Committee, finalizing the action.

Evaluations for initial and continued candidacy and initial accreditation also follow the processes outlined above.

The Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) provides an alternative evaluation process for organizations already accredited by the Commission. AQIP is structured around quality improvement principles and processes and involves a structured set of goal-setting, networking, and accountability activities. AQIP employs these steps to reaffirm an organization’s accredited status.

  • The organization during a seven year period engages in all AQIP processes, including Strategy Forums, Annual Updates, Systems Portfolio Appraisals, visit to review U.S. Department of Education compliance issues.
  • An AQIP Review Panel examines the collective history of the organization’s interaction with AQIP and the Commission (i.e., reports of the various processes and activities, organizational indicators, current Systems Portfolio) to determine whether this evidence demonstrates compliance with the Commission’s Criteria for Accreditation. The Panel may seek and obtain additional information before making its recommendation.
  • The IAC takes action on the Panel’s recommendation regarding both reaffirmation of accreditation and continuing AQIP participation.
  • The Board of Trustees validates the action.

This description has been taken from Institutional Accreditation: An Overview published by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of College and Schools.

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