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Requirements for Institutional Accreditation

Updated on August 7, 2013
Yoon Sik Kim profile image

A Ph. D. in English, Dr. Kim teaches at Murray State College. A bug rancher, he also keeps honeybees (Google Dr. Kim's Honey Farm).



Requirements for Institutional Accreditation

Benefits of Accreditation

Unlike government agencies, institutions of higher education have voluntarily formed their own governing bodies known as accrediting agencies that police their operation by placing checks and balances in their operation. Such checks and balances are the requirements for institutional accreditation. There are many reasons why colleges and universities must be accredited, in the order of preference, by a regionally, nationally, or even internationally recognized accrediting agencies. Accreditation, a volunteer act of an institution, assures its quality—an open promise to the public that the school, indeed, offers a solid educational and professional preparation to its students. Some special programs are also accredited by its own body of specialty-program organizations, such as, say, Federal Law Enforcement Training or Special Education, independent of the school the programs and courses are being offered. There are 16 regional accrediting agencies, 10 nationally recognized accrediting agencies, 21 hybrid accrediting agencies, and 27 programmatic accrediting agencies (See Reference 1).

Accreditation thus means a seal of approval by its peers, attesting that an institution is carrying out its publicly stated mission by offering quality education to its students. As such, getting accredited is essential and the institution benefits in many ways:

  • Accreditation Assures Quality Education: By following and observing academic rigor and industry standards of its peer institutions, a school can offer quality education to its students. Without such objective peer evaluation from outside, there will be no assurance of quality control because there will be no measureable standards across the board. As a result of such consistent process-control, when students graduate from accredited institutions, their diplomas will mean a significant academic, professional, and vocational achievement and preparation worthy of their investment and hard work.
  • Accreditation Also Affirms a Uniform Standard: Imagine you want to transfer to another school, but the school you are transferring to will not accept your credit hours you have accumulated in your old school—because the courses you have taken there were not up to the academic and industry standards specified and demanded by the accrediting agency of this new school. Such incompatibility issues happen quite often. You have just wasted your time, money, and effort—all irrevocable resources caused by an institution that has not been accredited. Accreditation will set a uniform rigor and standard among member institutions, disallowing this type of institutional abuse and exploitation of unsuspecting students.
  • Accreditation Further Helps Name-Recognition: An institution will benefit from name recognition (often known as “branding”). For example, if you are a graduate of a certain school, people recognize your education because they know from their experience the quality education the school you have graduated from offers: in short, they know it is not one of those fly-by-night diploma mills. Accreditation is the first step toward such name-recognition. In the future, such reputation will help you land jobs better.
  • No Accreditation Means No Financial Aids. If an institution is not accredited, its students may not be qualified for federal and state financial assistance, such as federal grants, Pell grants, state/local/government grants and scholarships. Why should taxpayer’s hard-earned money be squandered away at a diploma mill that does not offer any rigorous academic and professional preparation? Even nonprofit organizations may not offer any grants or scholarship when you attend a school that is not accredited. You should be especially careful about many for-profit outfits nowadays offering distance education with some dubious name of “national accreditation” you have never heard of. This is why regional accreditation is better than national or international accreditation.


What Are the Criteria for Accreditation Then?

The specific criteria for accrediting an institution may vary among accrediting agency types. For instance, specialty programs require a unique set of standards that are industry-relevant. However, by and large, the basic core criteria for accrediting a school remain pretty much the same. For example, the North Central Higher Learning Commission (NCHLC) requires the following: “mission and integrity; preparing for the future; student learning and effective teaching; acquisition, discovery and application of knowledge; and engagement and service” (See Reference 2).

Primary Mission

Invariably the first criteria for all accreditation focus on the institutional mission, the overarching umbrella that covers the entire aspect of institutional operation. (See Reference 2). Under the heading of mission and integrity (NCHLC), there are four specific standards that are required for accreditation: “a clear statement of institutional mission and a statement of commitment to mission, a statement of learner diversity and greater society it serves, presence of pervasive culture supportive of that mission and the organizational structure supportive of mission based on collaborative shared-governance”(See Reference 2). Arguably, the mission is the principal criterion, the atomic core, in any type of accreditation as it spells out the purpose and vision of the institution, an open social contract with the stakeholders—students, faculty, administration, parents, and the local community in which the institution finds itself. From this Big Bang (of the central mission), other mission statements, at various lower levels of academic units, are spun off, articulating how each sub-units will help accomplish that one overarching primary mission. When going through accreditation or re-accreditation, each sub-unit must work down from the overall mission rather than working up so as not to change the primary mission, a task that is far more difficult and challenging.


Integrity: Doing What You Have Promised You Would Do in the Mission Would Do in the Mission

The second criterion deals with, among others, ethical and responsible conduct in resource allocation, adequate funding, and institutional preparedness for unforeseen future challenges: the institution should align its resources according to future societal and economic demands, such as “demographic shifts, changing technology and globalization,” for instance (See Reference 2). Are you doing what you are supposed to be doing as spelled out in the primary mission statement, an open binding contract with all the stakeholders? The institution should allocate resources not only for its current operation but also for future expansion and growth. Furthermore, the institution should evaluate its effectiveness on a regular basis to maintain its integrity to the mission. Such assessment should not be episodic only to pass another accreditation visit: the institution should show evidence, regarding its effectiveness so that it can come up with corrective measures when necessary—as all levels of planning, such as budgeting and instituting programs, should support the overall mission. In essence the second criterion of institutional integrity means “Are you being honest to yourself and your mission in all aspects of your operation?”

Student Learning and Effective Teaching

The third criterion focuses on the effectiveness of teaching and student learning, the very backbone of quality assurance for student learning. To meet this criterion, the institution must have clearly articulated outcome goals for individual educational programs as well as how to measure whether or not the goals are met based on what evidence: the method of evaluation. Ideally, such goals and objectives as well as the modus operandi for evaluation must come from the consensus of all stakeholders—based on shared-governance and team work—rather than the administration-imposed “my way or high way” mandate. To meet this criterion, the school must demonstrate how it “values and supports effective teaching”(See Reference 2). The institution should provide evidence indicating how it “creates effective learning environment,” such as creating remedial life-long learning centers as well as faculty-enhancement centers for effective teaching and learning. Most important, the institution should also demonstrate how the allocation of learning resources supports both student learning and effective teaching: setting lofty goals and objectives is one thing, but being able to budget, support, and sustain those goals under duress and recession is another.


Application of Knowledge, and Engagement and Service

Finally, the last criterion for accreditation demands a marriage between theories and practical applications. The institution must maintain “a life of learning for its faculty, administration, staff, and students by fostering and supporting inquiry, creativity, practice, and social responsibility in ways consistent with its mission”(See Reference 2). In short, an institution of higher education must not be an isolated ivory tower, removed from day to day reality; its educational and professional preparation must be industry-relevant, applicable, here and right now—reflecting the daily needs of all the stakeholders, in general, and the people in the region, in particular. To meet this criterion, the school should show evidence of its evaluation as to how its current course offerings are relevant, practical, realistic, diverse, technological, and global, for instance. Such evaluation must come from an ongoing institutional commitment to its internal and external communities. The surrounding communities of the institution, for instance, should value the indispensable services the school provides in the region.

1. US Department of Education

2. Higher Learning Commission: Criteria for Accreditation



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