Accreditation of colleges in the United States is necessary to ensure the quality of academic institutions, especially those that grant degrees. There need to be widely accepted standards of educational quality that a school must meet for it to be able to say with confidence that its programs and degrees are valuable and credible.
Schools earn accreditation by participating in a process of evaluation conducted by a nationally recognized accreditation agency. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which is a nongovernmental organization, is dedicated to setting standards for accreditation and maintaining records of accreditation organizations that meet those standards. The U.S. federal government recognizes any organization that is approved by the CHEA as qualified to be an accreditation evaluator, and, according to CHEA.org, its 61 recognized accreditation groups have approved schools or programs that enrolled more than 2.8 million students in 2006-2007.
The process of accreditation in the United States entails both self-evaluation, done by the school itself, and peer evaluation, which is done by the accrediting organization.
To become an accrediting group, an organization must establish a set of standards and criteria with which it will evaluate schools and programs. The standards are set in collaboration with education institutions and typically reflect long-held criteria of the Council for Higher Education. These criteria usually have to do with the type of education available at the insitution and everything that that entails, including the qualifications of professors, class sizes and course materials.
Schools can choose which accreditation group they would like to work with. They typically pick ones that have been in existence for a long time and that are recognized as reputable by the CHEA. The school then undergoes a self-study. This is a report that is prepared by the school measuring how well it meets the criteria spelled out by the accreditation group.
The second parameter to accreditation involves on-site evaluation of the school done by the accrediting organization. Representatives of the accreditation group go to the campus to evaluate the school, or a particular program, and to determine whether educational standards are being met.
The group may determine that a school meets the standards for accreditation or it may decide that the school needs to meet certain conditions before accreditation is offered. If the organization determines that all standards have been met, it will add the institution to its official list of accredited schools. After a school or program becomes accredited, the group will continue to monitor it to make sure that it maintains its level of quality. Accrediting organizations sometimes choose to re-evaluate institutions to check whether their accreditation should continue.
Accreditation can be a somewhat confusing process in the United States because there is no central body that oversees every aspect of it. However, because it involves both self- and peer evaluation, the process can be a very productive and positive means of measuring the value of schools' educational offerings.
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