A Primer on Accreditation

By Robert L. King April 29, 2022 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

For most people, the honor of being appointed or elected to the governing board of a higher education institution is a profound one. Yet serving as a trustee also involves important responsibilities, among them the duty to be certain the institution is “accredited” and retains that status going forward.

AGB has described accreditation as “a voluntary nongovernmental, periodic, peer-based system of review of colleges and universities and their programs,” one that aims to encourage an institution’s continuous improvement. Board members often take for granted that their institution is fully accredited and generally view accreditation as a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for its educational offerings. But they don’t really know exactly why accreditation is vitally important, how it works, and what their responsibilities are as trustees for helping to maintain it.

Let’s start with why it’s so important. The financial well-being of your institution is directly connected to its accreditation status. While being accredited provides validation of some limited measure of academic quality and performance at your college or university, it is accreditation’s relationship to the institution’s financial viability that matters most.

Why? Because the U.S. Congress, in enacting the Higher Education Act of 1965, mandated that institutional accreditation must be in place for an institution, its students, and its faculty to be eligible to receive federal grants and loans. Especially given how tuition has risen over recent decades, many students require access to federally funded student loans and/or Pell Grants to afford college. Low-income students aren’t the only ones who need such financial assistance— millions of middle-class students also depend on it to pay their tuition and other costs of attendance (room, board, books, and fees). From the perspective of a college or university, those government funds significantly help to cover the cost of the education and ancillary services it provides. So, while your institution could choose not to be accredited, it would be very difficult to survive financially.

How does a college or university become accredited? Who decides? What criteria will be used to determine whether an institution can be accredited?

The Higher Education Act also created a formal process for accreditation, calling for the establishment of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). Congress and the U.S. Secretary of Education appoint the members of that committee, who serve six-year terms. NACIQI then recommends to the Secretary of Education which organizations should be recognized as federally approved accreditors, based on their meeting certain standards set out by NACIQI and U.S. Department of Education regulations.

Such accrediting organizations are essentially membership groups made up of hundreds of institutions that share: 1) a common geography (for example, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education or the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools); 2) a common corporate structure (for-profit or nonprofit institutions); or 3) a common purpose (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the American Bar Association, or the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology).

The membership organizations who share a common geography or corporate structure are considered institutional accreditors, and those who share a common purpose are viewed as programmatic accreditors. Many smaller organizations specialize in accrediting graduate and professional schools, and a few accredit foreign institutions. Close to 90 accrediting organizations operate in the United States today.

The federal government gives these organizations broad autonomy. Once recognized as an accreditor, the accrediting organization then determines the criteria that will be used to accredit their individual member institutions. Each accrediting organization can have different criteria, as determined by the votes of the higher education institutions that are its members. Typically, the members create bylaws that outline a process to propose and vote on the criteria they use to assess each member institution’s eligibility for accreditation.

If an institution loses or is denied accreditation, it can appeal first to the accreditor, and then if necessary, to NACIQI. But in most instances, the question on appeal is, “Did the accreditor follow its own rules?” NACIQI rarely questions the appropriateness of an accreditor’s criteria or process for accrediting its members.

To review: The Congress created NACIQI. NACIQI recognizes individual organizations as authorized accreditors. Individual colleges and universities seek, and then maintain, accreditation from their chosen accreditor. If accreditation is either declined or removed from an institution, it may appeal according to the accreditor’s appeal process. If still unsatisfied, it may appeal to NACIQI.

What does this all mean to you as a trustee? First, you should ask your campus administrators questions such as: “When was our last accreditation self-study?” “What did we learn from it?” “What do we need to know about future accreditation processes?” “Are there any circumstances that might compromise our ability to retain our accreditation status?” “If so, what is being done to avoid a loss of accreditation or being placed in a status of less than full accreditation?”

Consider asking your board leadership to offer orientation and continuing programs on accreditation. In addition, your board should monitor the institution’s accreditation status annually, as well as learning the standards that accrediting organizations apply to the board’s own governance and actions. In sum, as the AGB-CHEA Joint Advisory Statement on Accreditation & Governing Boards states, boards play an important oversight role when it comes to accreditation: “As presidents and chief academic officers establish a campus culture of continuous improvement and evidence of student success, boards can support the administration’s agenda through engagement in the accreditation process.” That engagement, the statement advises, “is central to the ongoing vitality and value of accreditation and its work on behalf of students, colleges and universities, government, and the public.”

Robert L. King is a former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education and is a member of AGB’s Board of Directors.

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