Regional accreditation is the educational accreditation of schools, colleges, and universities in the United States by one of seven regional accrediting agencies. Accreditation is a voluntary process by which colleges demonstrate to each other, and sometimes to employers and licensing agencies, that their credits and degrees meet minimum standards. It is the self-regulation of the higher education industry.
Each regional accreditor oversees the vast majority of public and private educational institutions, both not-for-profit and for-profit, in its region. Their primary function is accreditation of post-secondary institutions, though there is a limited amount of accreditation of primary and secondary schools.
While it might seem that national accreditation would be more important than regional accreditation, this is generally not the case. Regional accreditation is older, and with a few exceptions, more prestigious than national accreditation. Most non-profit institutions are regionally accredited, while most for-profit colleges and universities are served primarily by national accrediting agencies.
The following are the seven active regional accrediting agencies for educational institutions in the United States:
The seven organizations form the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC). Each regional accrediting commission's executive directors and commission chairs sit on C-RAC and periodically promulgate principles and guidelines which are followed by the regional commissions. Although the principles do not replace individual commission regulations, they provide a basis for assessing accreditation practice between regions.
All regional agencies have accrediting authority for colleges and universities, 2-year, 4-year, or both. Some agencies also have accrediting authority over K-12 schools (primary and secondaryschools). Both the northwestern and mid-Atlantic regions divide responsibility between two separate accreditation agencies with one focusing on primary and secondary schools and the other focusing on postsecondary institutions. In the western region, there is a separate commission that accredits 2-year colleges.
The regional accrediting agencies were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to a perceived need for better articulation between secondary schools and higher education institutions (the school offered the courses the college needed applicants to have taken; this helped colleges and universities evaluate prospective students). The New England Association was formed in 1885 by a group of schoolmasters of secondary schools. The Middle States Association formed in 1887. The faculty of Vanderbilt University led the establishment of the Southern Association in 1895, and the North Central Association was organized the same year at a meeting of 36 administrators of midwestern schools, colleges, and universities. The Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools (predecessor of the two organizations that now serve that region) was formed in 1917 and the Western Association was founded in 1923.
Initially the main focus of the organizations was on accreditation of secondary schools and establishment of uniform college entrance requirements. Regional accreditation replaced other methods, such as the Association of American Universities's "AAU Accepted List" (1914-1948).
Accreditation first emerged as a regional rather than national activity because it typically involved site visits, and the fastest transportation available at the time was the railroad.
Regionally accredited institutions are usually academically oriented, state-owned or non-profit private institutions. Nationally accredited schools are usually career-oriented and for profit. Both regional and national accreditations are recognized by the United States Department of Education (U.S.DoED) , the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Every college in the United States has the right to set standards and to accept or refuse to accept transfer credits. If a student has attended a school that is not regionally accredited, it may be difficult or impossible to have the credits, or even the degree earned, recognized by a regionally accredited college (or employer). A 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that, in making decisions on credit transfer, about 84 percent of U.S. higher education institutions considered whether the sending institution is accredited, and many had policies stating that they would accept credits only from regionally accredited institutions. About 63 percent of institutions told the GAO that they would accept credit from any regionally accredited institution, but only 14 percent similarly accepted credits from nationally accredited schools. Regionally accredited institutions are reluctant to accept credits from nationally accredited institutions due, in part, to national accreditors' less stringent standards for criteria such as faculty qualifications and library resources. Students who anticipate transferring credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited one are advised to verify in advance that the credits will be accepted.[unreliable source?]
In general, the names of U.S. post-secondary institutions and their degree titles do not indicate whether the institution is accredited or the type of accreditation it holds. Rules on this topic vary from state to state. For example, Tennessee Higher Education Commission regulations require that post-secondary institutions in the state of Tennessee must be regionally accredited to use the word "university" in their names, and that a school lacking regional accreditation may not use the word "college" in its name without adding a qualifier such as "career", "vocational", "business", "technical", "art", "Bible", or "Christian". Tennessee rules also specify that only regionally accredited schools can issue liberal arts degrees or degree titles such as Associate of Arts or Science and Bachelor of Arts or Science.[dead link]