Regional accreditation is the educational accreditation of schools, colleges, and universities in the United States by one of six regional accrediting agencies. Accreditation, technically a voluntary process, is a means by which colleges demonstrate to each other, and sometimes to employers and licensing agencies, that their credits and degrees meet minimum standards. It is the self-regulation of the higher education industry.
Each regional accreditor oversees the vast majority of public and private educational institutions, both not-for-profit and for-profit, in its region. Their primary function is accreditation of post-secondary institutions, though there is a limited amount of accreditation of primary and secondary schools.
While it might seem that national accreditation would be more important than regional accreditation, this is, in general, not the case. Regional accreditation is much older, and (with a few exceptions) more prestigious than national accreditation. Most non-profit institutions are regionally, not nationally, accredited.
List of regional accreditors
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education, formerly part of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools - Postsecondary institutions in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges - Educational institutions in the six New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont).
- Higher Learning Commission, formerly part of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools - Educational institutions in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
- Northwest Accreditation Commission for primary and secondary schools and Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) for postsecondary institutions in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools - Educational institutions in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges - 4-year educational institutions in California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands, as well as schools for American children in Asia.
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, formerly part of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges - 2-year educational institutions in California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Micronesia, Palau, and Northern Marianas Islands, as well as schools for American children in Asia.
The seven organizations form the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC). Each regional accrediting commissions’ executive directors and commission chairs sit on C-RAC and periodically promulgate principles and guidelines which are followed by the regional commissions. Although the principles do not replace individual commission regulations, they provide a basis for assessing accreditation practice between regions.
All regional agencies have accrediting authority for colleges and universities, 2-year, 4-year, or both. Some agencies also have accrediting authority over K-12 schools (primary and secondaryschools). Both the northwestern and mid-Atlantic regions divide responsibility between two separate accreditation agencies with one focusing on primary and secondary schools and the other focusing on postsecondary institutions. In the western region, there is a separate commission that accredits 2-year colleges.
The regional accrediting agencies were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to a perceived need for better articulation between secondary schools and higher education institutions (the school offered the courses the college needed applicants to have taken; this helped colleges and universities evaluate prospective students). The New England Association was formed in 1885 by a group of schoolmasters of secondary schools. The Middle States Association formed in 1887. The faculty of Vanderbilt University led the establishment of the Southern Association in 1895, and the North Central Association was organized the same year at a meeting of 36 administrators of midwestern schools, colleges, and universities. The Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools (predecessor of the two organizations that now serve that region) was formed in 1917 and the Western Association was founded in 1923. Initially the main focus of the organizations was on accreditation of secondary schools and establishment of uniform college entrance requirements.
Accreditation first emerged as a regional rather than national activity because it typically involved site visits, and the fastest transportation available at the time was the railroad.
Regional accreditation vs. national accreditation
Regionally accredited institutions are predominantly academically-oriented, non-profit or state-owned institutions. Nationally accredited schools are predominantly for-profit. National accreditation is used in the non-profit sector for specific programs, such as nursing.
Every college has the right to set standards and refuse to accept transfer credits. If a student has attended a school that is not regionally accredited, it may be difficult or impossible to have the credits, or even the degree earned, recognized by a regionally-accredited college (or an employer). A 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that, in making decisions on credit transfer, about 84 percent of U.S. higher education institutions considered whether the sending institution is accredited, and many had policies stating that they would accept credits only from regionally accredited institutions. About 63 percent of institutions told the GAO that they would accept credit from any regionally accredited institution, but only 14 percent similarly accepted credits from nationally accredited schools. Regional institutions are reluctant to accept credits from nationally accredited institutions due, in part, to national accreditors' less stringent standards for criteria such as faculty qualifications and library resources. Students who anticipate transferring credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited one are advised to verify that the regionally accredited school will accept the credits before they enroll in the nationally accredited one.
In general, the names of U.S. post-secondary institutions and their degree titles do not indicate whether the institution is accredited or the type of accreditation it holds. Rules on this topic vary from state to state. For example, Tennessee Higher Education Commission regulations require that post-secondary institutions in the state of Tennessee must be regionally accredited to use the word "university" in their names, and that a school lacking regional accreditation may not use the word "college" in its name without adding a qualifier such as "career", "vocational", "business", "technical", "art", "Bible", or "Christian". Tennessee rules also specify that only regionally accredited schools can issue "liberal arts" degrees or degree titles such as Associate of Arts or Science and Bachelor of Arts or Science.
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation
- List of recognized higher education accreditation organizations
- List of unrecognized higher education accreditation organizations
- Pre-tertiary education accreditation
- Statement of Commitment by the Regional Accrediting Commissions for the Evaluation of Electronically Offered Degree and Certificate Programs, retrieved from University of Hawaii website, June 19, 2011. "The eight regional accrediting commissions assure the quality of the great majority of degree-granting institutions of higher learning in the United States." (Page i)
- Catherine Finnegan, Aligning Information Technology with Academic Standards, Educause Center for Applied Research Research Bulletin, volume 2006, Issue 10, May 9, 2006. "Regional acceditors include among their membership nearly all community colleges and public and private colleges universities in the region that they serve." (Page 2)
- Janice M. Karlen, Accreditation and Assessment in Distance Learning, Academic Leadership: The Online Journal, Volume 1, Issue 4, Fall 2003 (November 2003). "Most institutions rely upon one of the eight regional accreditation organizations for their accreditation status."
- Regional Accrediting Organizations 2010-2011, Council for Higher Education Accreditation, accessed June 19, 2011
- Regionally Accredited Colleges/Universities, State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, accessed June 19, 2011
- "Frequently Asked Questions About the Middle States Association and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education". Middle States Commission on Higher Education. 2015. Retrieved December 18, 2015.
- Fred F. Harcleroad and Judith S. Eaton (2005), "The Hidden Hand: External Constituencies and their Impact," Chapter 9 in Philip G. Altbach, Robert Oliver Berdahl, and Patricia J. Gumport, editors, American higher education in the twenty-first century: social, political, and economic challenges. Page 263. JHU Press. ISBN 0-8018-8035-1, ISBN 978-0-8018-8035-3.
- History of the North Central Association
- What is the Difference Between Regional and National Accreditation, Yahoo! Education website
- Tussling Over Transfer of Credit, Inside Higher Ed, February 26, 2007 by Doug Lederman
- Judith S. Eaton, Accreditation and Recognition in the United States, CHEA, 2008.
- Demanding Credit, Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 19, 2005 by Scott Jaschik
- Government Accountability Office, Transfer Students: Postsecondary Institutions Could Promote More Consistent Consideration of Coursework by Not Basing Determinations on Accreditation, GAO-06-22, October 2005.
- Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, Protecting Tennesseans from Education Fraud, March 2007. Page 7.
- U.S. Department of Education, Accreditation in the United States