History and Process of Accreditation in the United States

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality. Accreditation in the United States involves non-governmental entities as well as federal and state government agencies. Accreditation’s quality assurance function is one of the three main elements of oversight governing the Higher Education Act’s (HEA’s) federal student aid programs. In order for students to receive federal student aid from the U.S. Department of Education (Department) for postsecondary study, the institution must be accredited by a “nationally recognized” accrediting agency (or, for certain vocational institutions, approved by a recognized state approval agency), be authorized by the State in which the institution is located, and receive approval from the Department through a program participation agreement.

In the United States, institutions of higher education are permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy. The United States has no Ministry of Education or other centralized federal authority exercising control over the quality of postsecondary educational institutions, and the states assume varying degrees of control over education. As a consequence, American educational institutions can vary widely in the character and quality of their programs. To ensure a basic level of quality, the practice of accreditation arose in the United States as a means of conducting nongovernmental, peer evaluation of educational institutions and programs. With the passage of the HEA in 1965, Congress expanded agencies’ role by entrusting them with ensuring academic quality of the educational institutions at which federal student aid funds may be used subject to oversight by the federal government through the recognition process. Private educational associations have adopted criteria intended to reflect the qualities of a sound educational program and have developed procedures for evaluating institutions or programs to determine whether or not they are operating at basic levels of quality. Although agencies promulgate standards to ensure institutional quality, agencies have no legal control over educational institutions or programs.

Under the HEA, the Department does not have the authority to recognize accrediting agencies for the accreditation of private or public elementary and secondary schools. If an accrediting agency which is recognized by the Department for higher education also accredits elementary and secondary schools, the Department’s recognition applies only to the agencies’ accreditation of postsecondary institutions or programs.

Learn more about the U.S. Accreditation under the HEA of 1965 by and through the U.S. Department of Education (click here).

Role of Accrediting Agencies (Accreditors)

Accreditors, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an accreditor’s evaluation and that meet an accreditor’s criteria are then “accredited”.

Role of Department

Under the HEA the Department “recognizes” (approves) agencies that the Secretary of Education determines to be reliable authorities as to the quality of education or training provided by institutions of higher education, and the Department publishes a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies. The Department does not accredit individual educational institutions and/or programs and is not directly involved in the institutional or programmatic accrediting process. The Department recognizes only agencies that apply for recognition; many do not. Along with its recognition decision, the Department designates the scope of accrediting activities to which its recognition pertains.

Accrediting Agencies Recognition Process

An agency seeking recognition from the Secretary of Education must meet the Department’s regulatory criteria for the recognition of agencies, and must have a link to a federal program (e.g., federal student aid). Only agencies recognized by the Secretary can provide the gate-keeping function to allow institutions they accredit to participate in the federal student aid programs under the HEA. Some of the criteria for recognition, such as the criterion requiring a link to Federal programs, have no bearing on the quality of an agency; however, they do have the effect of making some accreditors ineligible for recognition for reasons other than quality. The recognition process involves reviews by the Department’s Accreditation Group staff and the (NACIQI). Both the staff and NACIQI recommendations are submitted to the Senior Department Official designated by the Secretary who makes the decision regarding recognition.

The Secretary also recognizes various state agencies for the approval of public postsecondary vocational education and for the approval of nursing education. These agencies must meet separate sets of recognition criteria and their applications for recognition also undergo review by the Accreditation Group staff and the NACIQI.

Foreign Institutions and Programs

The Department’s recognition of agencies does not extend to the approval or accreditation any accreditor may grant to foreign institutions or programs. However, the Secretary does appoint members to the National Committee on Foreign Medical Education and Accreditation (Committee). That Committee has the legal responsibility for reviewing the standards that foreign countries use to accredit medical schools in those countries to determine whether those standards are comparable to the standards used to accredit medical schools in the United States. The comparability decisions made by the Committee affect whether U.S. students attending foreign medical schools can receive loans under the Department’s federal student aid loan programs.

Learn more about the U.S. Department of Education’s accreditation process via their brochure (click here).

The U.S. Department of Education federal accreditation only operates within the context of the HEA of 1965; it is also limited to institutions of higher education that offer federal funding programs. For more information, visit HEA Federal Accreditation.


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All potentially copyrighted works contained herein represented to NHCI to comply with the Copyright Laws of the United States (click here for full text). Visit www.USA.gov to access the guide on government information and services. National Healthcare Credentialing Institute® (NHCI); 2021