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Definitions and Purposes of Accreditation

Accreditation in higher education is a collegial process based on self and peer assessment. Its purpose is the improvement of academic quality and public accountability. This continuing quality control process occurs usually every five to ten years.

Accreditation is a term covering both the initial and ongoing approval of a school, postsecondary institution, or program offering as meeting the standards established by a nationally recognized accrediting association for membership in the association. Accrediting associations are voluntary membership organizations that undertake to monitor the academic and administrative quality of their members, which are either entire institutions or components.

Accreditation is a uniquely American invention. In other countries, ministries and statutory laws grant recognition afforded to schools and higher education institutions. Accreditation is the United States’ equivalent of this recognition. The validity of accreditation for such purposes is recognized by state governments, the federal government, and generally by other countries and international organizations. Most institutions attain eligibility for federal funds by holding an accredited status with one of the accrediting agencies recognized by the Secretary of the USDE. 

The United States Department of Education provides the following overview of accreditation: 
The United States has no federal ministry of education or other centralized authority exercising single national control over postsecondary educational institutions in this country. The states assume varying degrees of control over education, but, in general, institutions of higher education are permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy. As a consequence, American educational institutions can vary widely in the character and quality of their programs.

In order to ensure a basic level of quality, the practice of accreditation arose in the United States as a means of conducting non-governmental, peer evaluation of educational institutions and programs. Private educational associations of regional or national scope have adopted criteria reflecting the qualities of a sound educational program and have developed procedures for evaluating institutions or programs to determine whether or not they are operating at basic levels of quality.

Functions of Accreditation:

1. Certifying that an institution or program has met established standards 
2. Assisting prospective students in identifying acceptable institutions 
3. Assisting institutions in determining the acceptability of transfer credits 
4. Helping to identify institutions and programs for the investment of public and private funds 
5. Protecting an institution against harmful internal and external pressure 
6. Creating goals for self-improvement of weaker programs and stimulating a general raising of standards among educational institutions 
7. Involving the faculty and staff comprehensively in situational evaluation and planning 
8. Establishing criteria for professional certification and licensure and for upgrading federal assistance 

Review and Practice 1.1: Define the higher education accreditation process and describe its purpose and functions in your own words.

The Accrediting Procedure:

1. Standards: The accrediting agency, in collaboration with its communities of interest, establishes and periodically revises standards and policies. 
2. Self-study: The institution or program seeking accreditation prepares an in-depth self-study that measures its performance against the standards established by the accrediting agency. 
3. On-site Evaluation: The association selects a team of external academic and administrative experts from other similar institutions or programs. The team reviews the self-study and visits the institution or program to determine first-hand if the applicant meets the established standards. The evaluation team issues its report of findings enumerating any conditions that need to be met before full positive approval may be given. 
4. Publication: The association’s members of the Board of Commissioners vote on the status of the candidate or member, and publish the names and information about successful candidates and re-accredited members in the next annual edition of its official approved list. 
5. Reevaluation: The accrediting agency periodically reevaluates each institution or program that it lists to ascertain whether continuation of its accredited or pre-accredited status is warranted. 

Types of Accreditation

There are two basic types of educational accreditation: one identified as "institutional" and one referred to as "specialized" or "programmatic."

Institutional accreditation normally applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution’s parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution’s objectives, although not necessarily all at the same level of quality. The various commissions of the regional accrediting associations, for example, perform institutional accreditation, as do many national accrediting agencies.

Specialized or programmatic accreditation normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are part of an institution. The accredited unit may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline. Most of the specialized or programmatic accrediting agencies review units within an institution of higher education that is accredited by one of the regional accrediting commissions. However, certain accrediting agencies also accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational institutions of higher education that are freestanding in their operations. Thus, a specialized or "programmatic" accrediting agency may also function in the capacity of an "institutional" accrediting agency.

In addition, a number of specialized accrediting agencies accredit educational programs within non-educational settings, such as hospitals.

The Commission on Dental Accreditation is a specialized accrediting body established by the American Dental Association to ensure the quality of institutions or programs graduating individuals as dental professionals. The CODA grants accreditation to dental, advanced dental and allied dental educational programs. The disciplines include:

  • predoctoral dental
  • dental hygiene
  • dental assisting
  • dental laboratory technology
  • dental therapy
  • dental public health
  • oral and maxillofacial pathology
  • oral and maxillofacial surgery
  • pediatric dentistry
  • prosthodontics
  • orofacial pain
  • endodontics
  • oral and maxillofacial radiology
  • orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics
  • periodontics
  • general practice residency
  • advanced education in general dentistry
  • dental anesthesiology
  • oral medicine