Accreditation Is Not 'One Size Fits All'

Accreditation Is Not 'One Size Fits All'

The ultimate goal of accreditation is to ensure that students receive quality education and valuable career preparation, but different types of accreditation serve different aspects of the higher education system.

Accreditation Overview

Place a pin on a world map and the pin will likely land in a country that has a system of quality assurance or accreditation in place for its higher education institutions. In most parts of the world, accreditation is synonymous with the term “quality assurance.” Although standards for quality vary from place to place, the ultimate goal of accreditation is to ensure that students receive a quality education and the skills and competencies necessary to be successful in their chosen careers. Today’s students will likely have several lifetime careers, and the foundation for these careers begins with their higher education experience.

According to a U.S. Department of Education report, “The aim of accreditation is not to ensure that all institutions accredited by a given agency are identical or that all students who attend those institutions reach for the same goals or achieve the same outcomes.” Accreditation typically involves a process of self-evaluation by the educational institution followed by an external review by peers. As an institution embarks on the process of self-evaluation, faculty and staff can expect to be engaged in this process, with an eye toward quality improvement. The external review component is generally conducted by a panel of higher education experts who are experienced either in collegiate administration or in particular disciplines. Additionally, the panel may consist of industry practitioners, which is common in reviews of very specialized programs.

A peer review may be solely a desk review of the school’s self-evaluation report, but more commonly it entails an on-site visit to the university or college campus. The peer review panel assesses an institution’s alignment with the particular accreditation agency’s standards as well as its commitment to quality and the accreditor’s core values. The process does not end at the peer review phase. Most accrediting bodies depend on peer-appointed committees to review the panel’s report, which includes an accreditation recommendation. The committee may make the final accreditation determination or move it to another higher authority within the agency.

Another perspective on accreditation, offered by the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors, is that accreditation “offers a mark of distinction for academic programs and institutions, signaling high quality and a commitment to excellence.” Accreditation provides assurance to the public that graduates from an accredited institution or program have attained a level of knowledge and skills in their chosen fields of study. In addition, accreditation allows access to government tuition stipends, ensures exposure to relevant and current curricula, and provides access to support services that contribute to student success.

From an employer perspective, accreditation signifies that graduates have experienced rigorously reviewed programs taught by qualified faculty in their fields of specialization.

Finally, institutions and programs benefit from a system of internal self-evaluation and external review and accountability to all stakeholders, ensuring quality education exists within an environment of continuous improvement.

Types of Accreditation

Accreditation systems vary across the world. Historically, accreditation was referred to as “quality assurance,” and in many regions of the world the words are interchangeable. There are two types of accreditation frameworks: institutional accreditation and specialized/programmatic accreditation. For a school to award a valid degree, one that is recognized in the local region and beyond, institutional accreditation is essential. Unlike programmatic accreditation, which focuses on the attributes of a specific degree program or specialty, such as business education or veterinary science, institutional accreditation examines all aspects of the college or university, such as viability of its resources, teaching performance, graduation outcomes, administrative effectiveness, and other critical components that signify a quality institution.

Institutional Accreditation

As mentioned above, institutional accreditation authorities in the U.S. are not government-affiliated and are categorized as either regional or national accrediting bodies. Historically, regional accreditation was intended for both public and private institutions that emphasized broader academic learning versus vocational training. The majority of U.S. institutions are regionally accredited, allowing students more mobility between colleges and universities. There are six regional accreditors in the U.S. Although independent entities, regional and national accreditors must be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Outside of the U.S., institutional accreditation is more widely a function of national or local governments under the auspices of national ministries or specialized government branches. The European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) is a member organization representing quality assurance (QA) agencies in the European region and is responsible for the development of a common QA framework—“Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG).”

One of the roles of the ESG is to assist students in transferring course credits across national borders. The structure of nationally based accreditation systems vary throughout the European region. Countries such as France, Germany, and Italy have separate accreditation councils for public and private institutions.

The Asia Pacific region has a variety of accreditation agency models, which fall into both governmental and non-governmental categories. For example, the Korean Council on University Education is an independent organization charged with the accreditation of public and private universities in South Korea. China’s accrediting and regulation authority, the Department of Degree Management & Postgraduate Education, is a division of the Ministry of Education and is responsible for reviewing public higher education institutions and their programs. The Chinese Advanced Management Education Accreditation (CAMEA), supported by agencies associated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, is a voluntary programmatic accreditor with the mission to serve business education programs in China.

Programmatic Accreditation

Many national accrediting bodies also serve as programmatic examiners and include program reviews as part of their institutional review. In competitive global markets, such as business education and engineering education, institutions find value in seeking specialized accreditation from internationally recognized accreditors, like AACSB. International programmatic accreditation facilitates the flow of students, faculty, and research across borders and oceans. It is not uncommon for programmatic accreditors to engage industry experts to help develop standards, as well as peer reviewers on panels and committees to assure curricular relevancy.

Institutional accreditation or quality assurance lays the foundation for a university’s programs or disciplines to be successful, while programmatic accreditation focuses on aspects of quality that relate to a particular area, such as business. Both forms of accreditation are essential to ensuring that students receive quality instruction and are prepared to enter the world of work.

Accreditation Challenges and Opportunities

In recent years, students, government officials, and institutions themselves have questioned the value and purpose of accreditation. Institutions experience “accreditation fatigue,” as accreditation reporting requirements can overwhelm staff and take time away from academic endeavors. In response, accreditors are now working together to form joint accreditation visits, although these initiatives are still in formative stages. Institutional accreditors have begun to accept independent programmatic accreditation as substitutes for individual program reviews. Nontraditional learning experiences, such as competency-based education and awarding of college credits for work and life experiences, are on the radar of both institutional and programmatic accreditors.

Going forward, accreditation entities are being challenged to work together by engaging with other accreditors, to stay focused on their missions to serve a variety of stakeholders, and to embrace and stay ahead of rapid changes in the higher education landscape.


Jane LawlerJane Lawler is senior manager of accreditation services at AACSB International and is based in Tampa.