What Regionally Accredited Means and Why It Matters to You

SNHU Logo with text: What Regionally Accredited Means and Why It Matters to You

Idea in brief:
Everything you need to understand what colleges mean when they refer to their regional accreditation.

Anyone who has considered attending a U.S. college or university has probably seen that most refer to themselves in some way as accredited, often “regionally accredited.”

But few of us know what that means, why it’s important or how the accreditation process works. And it gets even more confusing if a college refers to something else, such as “nationally accredited.”

Is there something special about regional accreditation that makes it so important?

Yes, there is.

What is regional accreditation?

At the core, accreditation in higher ed is like in any other discipline or industry — a voluntary system of peer review of an institution according to established standards. Many growing industries mature to a point where a group of industry leaders, concerned about less-scrupulous entrants into their market, band together to establish an independent body that will hold them to high standards.

The same thing happened in higher ed when colleges and universities began to want a way to indicate institutional stability, good governance and a process for self-evaluation and improvement. In higher ed, the groups that first did this were organized regionally, evolving into the system of regional accreditation we have today.

There are 6 recognized regions with 7 federally recognized agencies. (In the western states, there are separate accrediting agencies for community colleges and 4-year institutions.) Those agencies manage the regional accreditation process for all institutions of higher education that volunteer to participate.

Regional accreditation considers the institution as a whole. It shouldn’t be confused with other systems of program-level accreditations that may look, for example, at the quality of a nursing program or a school of business. Those program-level evaluations often provide an additional indicator of high quality, but they are less universal, so the lack of a program-level accreditation by the relevant professional council doesn’t necessarily suggest a problem.

Nor should regional accreditation be confused with the system of national accreditors that developed originally to evaluate correspondence course schools, multi-campus trade schools and other institutions that were less geographically defined. Today, many “digital native” online schools, particularly for-profits, seek national accreditation.

The system of national accreditors is more controversial and considered by many to be a less reliable indicator of quality. For example, a congressionally appointed advisory board recently recommended ceasing recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), jeopardizing federal funding for the schools it evaluates. However, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently restored recognition for ACICS.

Where did regional accreditors come from?

During the late 1800s, the number of colleges in the U.S. began to grow dramatically. Most were founded:

  • with the charter of a state legislature in the case of public colleges and universities;
  • by the trustees of a church (e.g. Wesleyan University and Jesuit colleges);
  • by non-sectarian civic groups and philanthropists with the goal of improving their communities (e.g. Vanderbilt University, Emory University or Chicago University); or
  • by entrepreneurs in the case of for-profit colleges.

One problem is that anyone could set up a school and call it a college or university. There was no definite way to know if a school was committed to its stated mission or if it was taking advantage of tuition-paying students.

Nor was there any common standard for what a degree indicated. Two different institutions might award master’s degrees for very different levels of achievement. In the worst cases, “diploma mills” essentially sold degrees without providing any learning or requiring any work.

Eventually, colleges and universities within a region began to form their own accrediting agencies that evaluated members by an agreed-on set of standards. Seven of these regional accreditors survive today.

For example, Southern New Hampshire University, like over 200 other colleges and universities in the northeast United States, is accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE).

What is the role of the regional accreditors today?

The 7 regional accreditors became more important with the passage of The Higher Education Act of 1965. As the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) developed financial aid programs, it needed to ensure students were spending that aid at quality institutions rather than at diploma mills. As the U.S. doesn’t have a central ministry of education like many other countries, USDE empowered the regional accreditors to make those assessments.

So, while it is still true that anyone can rent classroom space or put courses online and call it a college, only at regionally accredited institutions of higher education can students use federal financial aid resources. If a school loses its accreditation, it becomes ineligible to accept federal financial aid dollars and thus loses a primary source of revenue.

The vast majority of institutions accredited by these regional agencies are either nonprofit or public schools, but not exclusively. For-profit schools can seek and win regional accreditation, and some do, though most work through national accreditors.

This system of regional accreditation has several ripple effects:

  • State governments, foundations and other funders typically only make grants and scholarships to regionally accredited colleges and universities or to students and researchers affiliated with them.
  • Graduate and professional school programs may require that applicants have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university.
  • A professional license in fields such as nursing or teaching usually requires a degree from a regionally accredited school.

Ultimately, regional accreditation provides public assurance about the quality of institutions, and it provides a mechanism for the institutions to evaluate themselves and to improve.

What does regional accreditation look at?

Each of the regional accrediting agencies uses a formal set of standards. They are somewhat different at each agency, though they are similar enough that they are all recognized by USDE, and students can generally transfer credits from one institution to another across regions.

For example, the standards may be more or less prescriptive at different agencies. One may require 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree program and another may recommend that standard and ask that a school provide a rationale for any variation.

You can see the specific regional accreditation standards here:

Fundamentally, regional accreditation considers if a college or university is mission focused and is organized to achieve that mission. For example, in a summary of its standards, NECHE says an accredited college or university:

  • has clearly defined purposes appropriate to an institution of higher learning;
  • has assembled and organized those resources necessary to achieve its purposes;
  • is achieving its purposes; and
  • has the ability to continue to achieve its purposes.

To evaluate that, NECHE considers standards related to planning, governance, financial and infrastructure resources, design of the academic programs, student support, faculty support, learning outcomes and transparency.

Regional accreditation doesn’t consider other activities, such as non-degree programs that don’t involve federal financial aid resources. For example, a college may operate a continuing education program for retirees or a summer program for high school students that is highly valued in the community. But if the program doesn’t award credit or take federal financial aid dollars, it wouldn’t have any bearing on accreditation.

The regional accrediting agencies are themselves evaluated by The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which ensures that dubious accrediting organizations don’t provide cover for diploma mills.

What is included in the accreditation process?

Most regional accreditation involves 2 major phases: a self-study every 10 years and an interim report after 5 years. (These timelines can vary by agency.)

Each stage involves extensive evaluation and reporting by internal working groups of faculty and other stakeholders that consider the standards above, as well as site visits by outside evaluators. There is also typically a public comment period.

Ultimately the regional accreditor produces a letter accepting or not accepting the school’s self-evaluation and laying out the timeline and conditions for the next report. Ideally, this letter will indicate that no other evaluation is needed during the next 5-year period. The accrediting agency may note issues of special attention that will get a closer look at that time. (A university’s accreditation status can often be found publicly in the consumer information section of their website. For example, here is SNHU’s.)

But the agency may also note concerns that require additional follow up or progress reports on a shorter timeline. Likewise, they may put a conditional or probationary status on the accreditation if the school isn’t meeting the standards.

And in extreme cases, they may withdraw its accreditation. The problems may be complex and compounding, but the last straw, at least publicly, is often that the school’s financial stability has become untenable. The school isn’t likely to be around in a few years to graduate any new students it is admitting.

Each of these kinds of decisions can often be found in the regional accreditors’ public notices.

How does regional accreditation deal with the changing higher ed environment?

One other effect of accreditation is that it establishes the scope within which a college or university can operate. A school stakes out its own mission, student profile, breadth of offerings and instructional modes, and the accreditation is for that stated scope.

But what if a school wishes to change or expand its scope as student needs, community needs or financial conditions change? For example, suppose the most recent evaluation is based on a college providing high-quality bachelor’s degrees but the college later sees a need for more certificate programs.

Or suppose they want to innovate by awarding associate degrees. Or by co-locating with a community college to award joint degrees. Or suppose independent campuses within a state system want to merge.

In cases like these, the college or university potentially wants to go out of the scope of what they are accredited for. So regional accreditors have processes for applying for “substantive changes.” These can include:

  • expanding beyond bachelor’s programs to grant master’s degrees or doctoral degrees for the first time;
  • delivering services at satellite or branch campuses;
  • cooperating to award degrees jointly with another institution; or
  • creating degree programs that are primarily or entirely online.

That last case, of course, is becoming very common as the popularity of online education grows.

One example of this in action is when SNHU designed and launched College for America, an online competency-based degree program that doesn’t use a traditional course schedule based on credit hours.

That was a substantive change and, moreover, it depended on translating measurable competencies into equivalent units of credit hours. The result was that College for America became the first regionally accredited degree of its kind.

So, while the regional accreditation system is designed in part to ensure stability, it also is designed to promote reflection and quality improvement. As such, it is possible for accredited colleges and universities to innovate to provide high-quality programs that are eligible for federal financial aid and that meet the needs of today’s students.

Is your organization looking for a partner that can provide high-quality and relevant degree programs for your employees? Get in touch to discuss building a plan that works for you.

Robert McGuire is a journalist and the owner of McGuire Editorial, a marketing firm specializing in higher education and education technology.

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