Frequently Asked Questions

Taken from "Institutional Accreditation: An Overview"
The Higher Learning Commission of the
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
(2003; Pages 10 - 13)

1. What is accreditation?
Accreditation by the Commission and by other nationally recognized agencies provides assurance to the public, in particular to prospective students, that an organization has been found to meet the agency's clearly stated requirements and criteria and that there are reasonable grounds for believing that it will continue to meet them.

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2. What is the value of accreditation?
Accreditation provides both public certification of acceptable institutional quality and an opportunity and incentive for self-improvement in the accredited organization. The Commission reaches the conclusion that a college or university meets the Criteria only after the organization opens itself to outside examination by experienced evaluators familiar with accrediting requirements and with higher education. The process of accreditation provides the accredited organization with an opportunity for critical self-analysis leading to improvement in quality and for consultation and advice from persons from other organizations.

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3. What is the difference between regional accreditation and state licensure?
While many states have established regulations that must be met before an educational organization may operate, in most states such regulations represent a minimum basis for protection of students. State authorization should not be confused with institutional or specialized accreditation. To operate legally, a college or university may need state authorization, but it does not necessarily have to be accredited by an institutional or specialized accrediting association. In fact, an organization must have the appropriate authorization by a state to operate before it can seek affiliation with the Commission.

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4. Why doesn't the Commission rank colleges?
Various publications base ranking on specific numerical details (such as size, tuition, and endowment); faculty selectivity; and/or public opinion. The purpose of accreditation is to provide public assurance of educational quality and institutional integrity. It is important to remember that colleges and universities differ from one another in significant ways, including mission, programs offered, and students served. Therefore, the important issue for each student is whether the college meets his or her needs. Published rankings are one source of information, but they should not be the only source.

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5. Why doesn't the Commission recommend colleges to students?
Selection of a college is an individual decision. There are so many different types of colleges and universities (small, large, single-program, multiple-program, urban, rural, public, private) that matching a student's interests and abilities to the characteristics of a college requires detailed information about the student and the organization. Information about colleges may be found in books and directories (available in many libraries), and students are advised to consult with their secondary school counselors or advisers. The admissions officers of colleges often are able to provide assistance, particularly information about the organization they represent. Increasingly, useful college information can be found on the Internet. The information available from the Commission is limited to that describing the organization's status with the Commission.

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6. Does accreditation include distance education courses and programs?
Yes. The Commission accredits many organizations that offer courses and programs through various methods of distance delivery. Since the Commission accredits organizations rather than individual programs, it does not maintain listings of such programs. The Commission does provide a list of Internet resources on distance education on its Web site. In addition, the regional associations have developed "Best Practices for Electronically Offered Degree and Certificate Programs" for those organizations that offer courses or programs through distance delivery (available on the Commission's Web site).

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7. Does accreditation guarantee that credits and degrees can be transferred to another college or university?
No. The college or university to which the student has applied determines transferability of credits and degrees. Transferability depends on the college or university at which credits or degrees were earned, how well the credits mesh with the curriculum offered by the school to which the student wishes to transfer, and how well the student did in the courses. Many organizations choose to consider the accredited status of the college at which the credit or degree was earned as one factor in the transfer decision. Some have specific agreements with other colleges or universities guaranteeing transfer of credits. Organizations should be prepared to explain their institutional policies on transfer and the factors in an individual transfer decision.

Students should be skeptical of any school that makes unqualified assertions that its credits will transfer to all other schools. Anyone planning to transfer credits should, at the earliest opportunity, consult the receiving organization about the transfer--before taking the courses for transfer, if possible.

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8. Does candidacy assure accreditation?
No. The Commission does not grant candidacy to an organization unless it has strong evidence that the college or university can achieve accreditation within the candidacy period. However, attainment of candidacy does not automatically assure eventual accreditation. The maximum length of candidacy is four years.

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9. What is the difference between institutional accreditation and program accreditation?
Institutional accreditation speaks to the overall quality of the organization without making judgments about specific programs. Institutional accreditation is accreditation of all programs, sites, and methods of delivery. The accreditation of individual programs, such as those preparing students to practice a profession, is carried out by specialized or program accrediting bodies that apply specific standards for curriculum and course content.

The Commission does not maintain lists of programs offered by its accredited organizations. Each specialized accrediting body publishes a list of programs it accredits. This information also is shown in the annual directories, Accredited Institutions of Postsecondary Education, published by the American Council on Education, and Higher Education Directory, published by Higher Education Publications, which are available in many libraries. The National Center for Education Statistics also provides an online tool, COOL (College Opportunities Online), that contains program and other information ( College catalogs usually note all institutional and program accreditations.

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10. How can a regional agency accredit an educational site outside its regional borders?
It has been long-standing practice to accredit colleges and universities as total units, no matter where they operate. The regional associations share a definition of a separately accreditable site; and in 2000, they initiated a collaborative evaluation process for organizations operating physical instructional sites in more than one region.

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11. Who evaluates the Commission?
The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a national, nongovernmental organization that provides recognition of accrediting bodies, as does the United States Department of Education (USDE). The Commission's CHEA recognition was reconfirmed in 2002. The USDE maintains a list of accrediting bodies determined to be "reliable authorities as to the quality of training offered by educational institutions and programs." The list serves as one of the bases for the federal government's determination of institutional

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