A great deal of time and energy is spent by the administration and faculty on trying to read the minds of the accreditors. What exactly do they want? What will cause them to cite the college or university with one or more demerits (which then have to be cleared up)? Based on my many years of experience with this little-known (outside of academia) process I can confidently say that it has become over the years much more complicated and burdensome.
What gives me the credibility to write about academic accreditation? First, for those not “in the know,” let me explain what “accreditation” means in contemporary higher education. In the United States (and I assume elsewhere) there exist many “accrediting” societies and associations that serve to give institutions of higher education a kind of “Good Housekeeping seal of approval.” An “accredited college” or “accredited university” is one that has that seal of approval from a nationally recognized accrediting society or association. Some of these are regional and some are professional. Many institutions of higher education seek and (usually) receive more than one “accreditation.”
For example, in the U.S. colleges and universities usually seek accreditation from their regional accrediting society. An example of such is the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools recently renamed The Higher Learning Commission. Each U.S region has one major such accrediting society or association. What gives them so much influence and power? Why is accreditation from one of these so important? I’ll come back to that question.
There are also professional accrediting societies and associations. For example, the Association of Theological Schools is the primary one for seminaries and divinity schools. Any seminary or divinity school that wants to be recognized as academically sound and serious seeks accreditation from the ATS. Virtually every profession has such an accrediting society or association.
So, for example, a university will seek accreditation (seal of approval) from its regional accrediting society or association and each academic unit within the university will seek accreditation from its professional society or association.
Why? Why is accreditation important and so highly valued and sought after? (This question is important to ask and answer because much energy and many resources are put into gaining and keeping these accreditations.) The answer is twofold.
First, being accredited by a widely and highly regarded accrediting society or association gives the institution or academic unit public credibility. For example, if a student graduates from a non-accredited institution of higher education he or she may find it difficult to get into a graduate school. He or she may also find it difficult to find a job in his or her field. Colleges and universities highlight their accreditations in their publicities.
Second, being accredited by a widely and highly regarded accrediting society or association gives the institution or academic unit ability to gain financial grants and awards and even government subsidized loans for students. Without such accreditation the institution may find it difficult to survive financially. Many, perhaps most, of these accrediting societies, associations and agencies are themselves accredited by the U.S. Department of Education which holds the purse strings, as it were, for much of the operating funds colleges and universities depend on.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
What gives me the credibility to speak about this subject? Well, I have been a full time faculty member of three Christian universities—all regionally accredited—for almost forty years. In each one of those I was involved on some level with “re-accreditation”—the process by which an institution of higher education applies for renewal of its accreditation. I have served on many committees and task forces related to renewal of accreditation processes. I have attended meetings of the accrediting societies and agencies. I have sat in on numerous faculty meetings the main purpose of which was to educate us about accreditation and gain our support and help in receiving renewal of accreditation—both from regional accreditation agencies, associations, societies and from professional ones. I have personally written large portions of “self-study reports” for accreditation societies, agencies and associations. I have met with “site teams” sent by accrediting societies, agencies and associations to determine whether a university where I served was worthy of renewal of accreditation.