In the United States, accreditation is done by agencies that have both regional and national scopes. Sometimes students and parents feel confused, not only about what accreditation really means, but also about what the difference is between regional and national accreditaion. Some make the incorrect assumption that national accreditation must be more meaningful thatn regional accreditation, or that there is just no significant difference between the two types of accreditation. However, regional and national accreditation are actually very different, not in quality, but in purpose.
Regional accreditation is based on geography. The United States has six different regional accreditation agencies: the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the New England Association, the North Central Association, the Northwest Association, the Southern Association, and the Western Association. So, all areas of the United States are covered, and, depending on the location of the school or program in question, the accreditation agency from that particular region will oversee the accreditation process. So, for example, if a school located in Texas decides to pursue regional accreditation, the process would be overseen by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Regional accreditation is done for the purpose of general accreditation of a school or program.
National accreditation, on the other hand, has nothing to do with geography. Schools pursue national accreditation when they qualify as having a program or being an institution that is very specific, such as schools targeted to specific career training, like technology, nursing, or cosmetology. For example, career schools and technology programs are given accreditation by the nationally-based Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology. Also, online colleges and traditional universities offering distance education are evaluated by the Distance Education and Training Council.
Because regional accreditation is based on evaluation of general insitutions of higher learning in particular geographic locations, and national accreditation is centered around accreditiation of particular types of schools and programs across the country, the differences between the two are actually very significant.
There are, however, many similarities between these two types of accreditation. According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), a nationally-recognized organization that establishes standards for accreditation across the country and maintains records of accreditaiton agencies that live up to those standards, all accreditation organizations in the United States recognized by the CHEA are private, non-profit organizations that have been developed for the sole purpose of providing accreditation. This means that neither regional or national accreditation agencies should be out to profit in any way from granting accreditaiton to any school, and this is a very important element in ensuring the integrity of the process of accreditation throughout the country.
Another similarity between regional and national accreditation is the fact that both processes are voluntary. Colleges can choose whether or not to apply for accreditation, and to wich agency they would like to apply. Also, if schools do decide to pursue accreditation, both types of accreditaiton processes entail self-evaltuation, done by the school itself, and peer evaluation, done by the accrediting agency. Also, both types of accreditation agencies are independent and do not work for the the federal government. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Eduction, neither regional nor national accreditation agencies are legally responsible to the federal government in any way.