A map for your accreditation journey

February 26, 2024 Watermark Insights

The Accreditation Journey: A Guide

Accreditation is a meaningful affirmation to the general public that your college or university meets high standards. By understanding the full process, institutions can increase their chances of reaching this notable status.

In this article, we’re breaking down the meaning of accreditation and exploring the various agencies that extend it to higher education institutions. Read on to learn more about the higher ed accreditation journey.

What is accreditation?

Accreditation is the primary means of signifying that a higher education institution provides students with a quality education. Its main purpose is to help prospective students and their families, as well as government officials, determine if a program is credible and well established.

What Is Accreditation?

The importance of accreditation extends beyond student decision-making. Proper accreditation is a prerequisite for both state and federal entities to offer grants or loans. 

Likewise, some states require an institution to have accreditation before allowing their students to participate in state licensure examinations for occupations such as:

  • Teaching.
  • Law.
  • Therapy.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) oversees all accrediting organizations and ensures that their processes are consistent in terms of:

  • Academic quality.
  • Improvement efforts.
  • Accountability expectations.
  • Eligibility standards.

Types of accreditation

Traditionally, there have been two main types of accreditation — national and regional. National accreditation organizations extend approval for institutions that offer certifications and degrees. Regional accreditation agencies were responsible for extending approval to state-owned and non-profit institutions.

However, in 2019, these rules shifted, impacting regional accreditors. The Department of Education repealed regional monopoly rules, meaning that accreditors could legally cross into each other’s territory and compete for business. For example, an institution located in Arizona that would traditionally seek accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) can now, if they choose, achieve accreditation through another accreditor, like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which previously only provided accreditation to southern U.S. states.

Though you may still see the term “regional accreditors,” it is becoming more common to use the phrase “institutional accreditors” when referencing the following organizations: 

  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

Who are the accreditors?

In most countries across the world, governments are responsible for extending quality assurance for their higher education institutions. In America, accreditors are private organizations that are not part of the U.S. government. 

CHEA provides a complete directory for - accrediting agencies recognized by CHEA and the Department of Education where you can learn more about each organization. The list includes the following categories:

  • Regional accrediting organizations
  • National faith-related accrediting organizations
  • National career-related accrediting organizations
  • Institutional accrediting organizations
  • Programmatic accrediting organizations

You can also find the Department of Education's accredited schools directory on its website. 

How does accreditation work?

Organizations that extend accreditation operate by first developing rigorous standards that higher education institutions must meet. The agency reviews prospective institutions or programs via a thorough vetting process before awarding accreditation. 

How Does Accreditation Work?

Accrediting agencies establish their standards through ongoing consultation with the following groups:

  • Higher education faculty
  • Institution administrators
  • Students
  • Governing boards
  • Select members of the public

The standards they set intend to address the following:

  • Student achievement
  • Faculty
  • Curriculum
  • Support for students
  • Financial capacity

Additional details related to the process will depend on the particular agency. However, there is a general process that an accrediting agency follows.

The accreditation process

The university accreditation process typically lasts one-and-a-half to two years after submitting the application. The size and scale of the educational institution can impact how long it takes for approval. 

While the process may vary slightly depending on the agency, the following includes the typical phases in the accreditation process:

Preparation and self-assessment

The first step in gaining accreditation is reviewing the accrediting agency's specific standards. The higher education institution must understand these prerequisites and use them to thoroughly assess their operations. They can then refine any areas that are not satisfactory and make the necessary operational changes. 

The university should aim to meet all standards prior to submitting their application. Doing so will help ensure they are eligible and ready for the next step toward approval.

Submitting the application

Once an institution feels it meets all standards set forth by the accrediting agency, its board can begin the application process. The institution's accomplishments are often among the most important materials to include. 

The application should demonstrate how and why the university is worthy of accreditation. Its format may vary depending on the agency, and most accrediting bodies will also require the payment of an application fee when submitting. 

Peer review visit

The accrediting organization will review the application to ensure the prospective institution meets all necessary criteria. If the agency approves the application for accreditation candidacy, the next step is a peer-review visit

A professional from the accrediting team will come to the institution's campus for further investigation into its quality. They will observe and validate the information shared in the application to affirm the university is eligible for accreditation.

Accreditation decision

After the accrediting body visits, they will evaluate the information they gathered and what they observed to determine whether or not the higher education institution meets all standards.

In some cases, the agency will follow up with suggestions for the university, or they may provide ongoing support to help the institution better comply with their criteria.

The agency will then reach its decision to either extend accreditation or deny it. 

Continuous review

When an institution achieves accreditation status, the agency will conduct ongoing reviews. The review process helps ensure the institution continues to uphold all quality standards. 

Accreditation policies

Each accrediting body has its own policies. There are a few key procedures that every agency outlines for its prospective and current higher education institutions. 

Learn more about the following accreditation policies and how they often work:

  • Fees: An accrediting organization will likely charge institutions fees to apply. When it is time for on-site evaluations, universities will also pay to help cover the visit's costs. An annual fee for maintaining accreditation is also typical. 
  • Renewal: Most accrediting organizations will require an institution to complete and submit an annual report in order to renew accreditation. The report ensures the university continues to meet all standards and maintains its quality educational offerings. 
  • Probation: Accredited institutions must participate in ongoing improvements. If they do not meet the standards set forth by the agency, they could face a probation period to get operations back on track. 
  • Sharing: Another common policy set forth by accrediting agencies is sharing accreditation. The institution will typically post its status on its public documents and its official website.

Accreditation software from Watermark

Is your higher education institution looking to achieve accreditation? Our assessment and accreditation management software, Watermark Planning & Self-Study, unifies planning, assessment, and outcomes in one centralized hub.

Our software enables institutions to boost data transparency and harness the power of accreditation-readiness tools. Planning & Self-Study allows your college or university to better manage assessment planning. It also supports a collaborative self-study process with custom report templates and control over its contributors. We make it easy to foster collaboration across your entire campus and monitor your adherence to accreditation standards.

Interested in learning more? Request a demo of our accreditation solutions today.

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