The Accreditation Process for Two-Year Schools

May 17, 2023 Watermark Insights

Colleges in the United States have a fair amount of independence and autonomy. A state's control over higher education institutions can vary. Without the centralized authority of a federal government agency to oversee them, educational programs can vary considerably in quality.

Still, students and parents want to ensure that an institution's education is solid. Many schools seek out accreditation to maintain enrollment numbers. This process can vary in length and complexity based on the accrediting association and the institution it's assessing.

What Is Two-Year College Accreditation?

Accreditation is a quality review process that higher education institutions use to verify their quality and detect improvement areas. With the Higher Education Act, as amended, Congress gave accrediting agencies more power to ensure the academic quality of higher education institutions.     

While these associations use their standards to measure quality, their power is advisory rather than legal. In other words, the educational programs or institutions they evaluate can continue to operate regardless of the agencies' decisions.

Accreditation is an ongoing process. Accrediting agencies periodically review institutions to confirm that their quality remains high. Under the U.S. Department of Education, accredited schools must receive a review every five years. While the Council for Higher Education Accreditation allows for a 10-year recognition period, it requires an interim report after five years.

What Are the Types of Accrediting Organizations?

Institutions can earn accreditation from one of the two agency classifications below.

1. Institutional

Institutional accreditation extends to an entire institution. It indicates that each of an institution's parts contributes to the achievement of its objectives. An institutional accreditation agency closely examines each component, including program design, finances, student support services, and learning outcomes.


Here are some examples of institutional accreditors:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Council on Occupational Education (COE)
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Northwest Commission on College and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of College and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

2. Specialized or Programmatic

Specialized or programmatic accreditation usually extends to departments or programs within an institution. The unit can be as small as a curriculum or as large as a school within an institution. Some specialized accreditation agencies can also accredit vocational or technical institutions.

Private or nongovernmental agencies proficient in a specific field of study perform specialized reviews to determine if an institution qualifies for programmatic accreditation. For instance, a nursing department may apply for a specialized accreditation that reviews its medical curriculums.

Here are some recognized programmatic accreditation agencies:

  • Accreditation Commission for Audiology Education (ACAE)
  • Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Accreditation Commission for Programs in Hospitality Administration (ACPHA)
  • Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
  • Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE)

What Are the Benefits of Accreditation?

What Are the Benefits of Accreditation?

Pursuing and maintaining accreditation makes a higher education institution more appealing by:

  • Ensuring the quality of education: Accrediting agencies develop standards to measure what they consider the qualities of a solid educational program. Their procedures determine if an educational program operates at a basic quality level.
  • Standardizing education: Standardized courses and requirements ensure students that their education will give them the knowledge they'll need in their chosen careers. Standardization also ensures employers that a candidate has received an adequate education.
  • Streamlining transfers: Students can more easily transfer course credits to a new institution with standardized courses. Students moving to four-year institutions can trust their credits will apply correctly.

What Are the Dangers of Losing Accreditation?

When a higher education institution is put on accreditation probation, it risks losing its eligibility to distribute federal financial funding. An organization may be placed on accreditation probation for reasons such as:

  • Low licensure exam pass rates
  • Low graduation rates
  • Low post-graduation employment rates

During probation, the accrediting agency closely monitors the institution to determine if it is addressing these issues. If the institution continues to fall short of quality standards, it will lose its accreditation.

A loss of accreditation poses risks to both institutions and their enrolled students. Without the ability to disperse Title IV funds, an institution could face a tarnished reputation, drops in enrollment rates, and a permanent shutdown.

What does this mean for students? If a student has already graduated from a higher education institution, their degree should retain its validity, even if the institution loses its accreditation down the road. However, if an educational establishment loses its accreditation during a student's enrollment, that student could encounter challenges, such as:

  • No longer qualifying for federal financial aid
  • Being unlikely to receive any tuition reimbursement
  • Having a degree that is not considered valid for graduate studies
  • Earning credits that are not transferrable to another institution
  • Holding a degree with little value to employers
  • Having to retake courses to graduate

When a higher education institution or program loses its accreditation, the most viable solution for a student is to transfer to a different accredited organization.

What Are the Dangers of Losing Accreditation?

What Are Community College Accreditation Requirements?

The agency awarding accreditation determines the requirements for a community college or other two-year institution. Below are some examples of two-year school accreditation processes by different agencies.


MSCHE evaluates accreditation eligibility by seven standards categories:

  1. Mission and Goals
  2. Ethics and Integrity
  3. Student Learning Experience Design and Delivery
  4. Student Experience Support
  5. Educational Effectiveness
  6. Resources, Planning, and Institutional Improvement
  7. Governance, Leadership, and Administration

You can read more about MSCHE standards for accreditation and what each category entails on the organization's website.


ACCJC examines the following areas when accrediting community and junior colleges:

  1. Authority
  2. Operational Status
  3. Degrees
  4. Chief Executive Officer
  5. Financial Accountability
  6. Mission
  7. Governing Board
  8. Administrative Capacity
  9. Educational Programs
  10. Academic Credit
  11. Student Learning and Student Achievement
  12. General Education
  13. Academic Freedom
  14. Faculty
  15. Student Support Services
  16. Admissions
  17. Information and Learning Support Services
  18. Financial Resources
  19. Institutional Planning and Evaluation
  20. Integrity in Communication with the Public
  21. Integrity in Relations with the Accrediting Commission

You can view these policies in full on the ACCJC's website.


NECHE uses these standards when evaluating an institution's accreditation eligibility:

  1. Mission and Purposes
  2. Planning and Evaluation
  3. Organization and Governance
  4. The Academic Program
  5. Students
  6. Learning, Teaching, and Scholarship
  7. Institutional Resources
  8. Effectiveness of Educational Programs
  9. Integrity, Transparency, and Public Disclosure

You can visit NECHE's website for more information about its accreditation requirements.

what is the accreditation process for two-year colleges?

What Is the Accreditation Process for Two-Year Colleges?

The accreditation process for two-year colleges consists of five parts:

  1. Self-study or evaluation: During this phase, a two-year school reviews and compares itself to the agency's accreditation standards. The school should write a self-evaluation, which it can use to determine where it needs to improve. It should also send the evaluation to the accrediting association for review.
  2. Peer review: After a school completes the self-evaluation, an external evaluation begins. The external evaluators are volunteer faculty and administrators from other institutions. There are usually eight to 12 members on an evaluation team.
  3. Site visit: The external evaluators visit the school to assess its programs' quality and determine if it meets the agency's standards.
  4. Decision: The evaluation team makes a decision about the school, deciding whether or not it merits accreditation. The evaluators may make specific recommendations if there are areas where the school needs to improve.
  5. Monitoring and continued improvement: After receiving accreditation, the school should work to continuously improve and maintain its standards. Implementing the evaluators' recommendations is a good first step to improvement. After several years, the accrediting agency will reassess the school to ensure it's maintaining the accreditation standards.

Accreditation Process For Two-Year Schools

How Can You Streamline the Accreditation Process?

Accreditation is a complex, multi-year process for two-year schools. It's also ongoing, meaning that even once a school earns accreditation, it must still face periodic reevaluation. Fortunately, there are several things your institution can do to simplify the accreditation process:

  • Centralize documents: The accreditation process can be paperwork-heavy. From self-evaluations to agency reviews, you'll have a lot to keep track of. Having a centralized location for all the documents associated with accreditation ensures that nothing gets lost in the shuffle. It also makes it easier for your team to access the paperwork they need when they need it.
  • Communicate clearly: Communication is critical during the accreditation process, whether you're going through an initial accreditation or a review. Make sure everyone involved in the process has a clear idea of what's happening and when, as well as what's expected of them. Your team should know where the documents are stored and how to use any software program associated with accreditation.
  • Use software: Software can simplify many things, including accreditation. A streamlined system helps you gather, reflect and act on assessment data.
  • Keep information up-to-date: Since accreditation is ongoing, your school should do what it can to keep its information updated. Updating your data and performing regular self-evaluations will also help you detect any issues before the next accreditation review comes around.

Explore our accreditation resources and request a demo

Explore Our Accreditation Resources and Request a Demo

Watermark offers a centralized approach to the accreditation process. We designed our Planning & Self-Study software specifically for higher-education institutions, including two-year schools. This intuitive software system integrates with the technology your school already uses and works well with other Watermark solutions.

Request a demo today to learn more about how our Planning & Self-Study system can help your school achieve and maintain accreditation.

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