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The meaning of accreditation to institutions of higher education is adapted from The Higher Learning Commission’s publication, “Institutional Accreditation: An Overview,” 2010, which can be downloaded from the Commission’s Understanding Accreditation.
In the United states, schools and colleges voluntarily seek accreditation from nongovernmental bodies. There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized.
Institutional accreditation is provided by six regional associations and a number of national associations. Institutional accrediting agencies evaluate an entire educational organization in terms of its mission and the agency’s standards or criteria; accredited status indicates that the entire institution meets those standards. Institutional accreditation is not specific to programs (i.e., the programs themselves are not accredited). Union Institute & University is regionally accredited as an institution.
There are six regional accrediting associations in the U.S., named after the regions in which they operate: New England, Southern, North Central, Northwest, and Western. (Union Institute & University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association.) The regional associations operate independently of one another, but acknowledge one another’s accreditation. Schools such as Union that operate in more than one region are accredited by the association in their “home” region; schools do not affiliate with more than one regional association, regardless of how many areas of the country in which they operate.
The national associations focus on particular kinds of institutions (schools offering online programs, trade and technical colleges, religious colleges). While it is possible for a school to have both regional and national accreditation, such situations are rare.
Specialized accrediting bodies evaluate particular units, schools, or programs within an educational organization. Specialized accreditation is also called program accreditation. Specialized accrediting bodies are frequently affiliated with national professional associations (e.g. American Bar Association) or with specific disciplines, such as teacher training, psychology, and social work. Many regionally accredited institutions may seek specialized accreditation for their programs—some professional licensing organizations will not consider graduates of non-accredited programs for licensure, even when the individual has graduated from a regionally or nationally accredited institution. Obtaining professional licensure after graduating from a program that does not have specialized accreditation is possible, but the likelihood varies by profession and sometimes by state. Conversely, graduation from a program with specialized accreditation is not a guarantee of acceptance for professional licensure. None of Union Institute & University’s programs hold specialized accreditation at this time: check individual program Web sites for more information.
Accreditation provides public certification of acceptable institutional quality. It is not, however, a guarantee that credits or a degree earned at an institution will be accepted at another institution or by a future employer—acceptance of degrees and credits are at the discretion of each school and organization.
Accreditation does not guarantee acceptance/recognition of a degree, or acceptance of credits in transfer—each college of university determines what degrees and credits it will accept. Transferability depends on the institution at which the credits or degree were earned and how well they mesh with the curriculum/program at the school where an individual seeks admittance (and how well the student did in her or his courses). Many organizations choose to consider the accredited status as one factor; some schools have collaborative agreements or consortia arrangements that guarantee transferability of credit between participating institutions.
Just as there are two types of accreditation, there two levels of state licensing—institutional authorizations and program-specific certifications.
Institutional / Program Authorizations
Colleges and universities can operate without accreditation, but they cannot legally operate without authorization of the state(s) in which they are located. Accrediting agencies will not consider a school or program as a candidate for accreditation without documentation of state authorization for the school. Criteria for state authorization vary from state to state. They are established by state law. State authorizations allow a school to legally operate in a state.
State certifications are similar to specialized accreditation: program-specific authorizations that verify that a specific program meets a state’s standards for professional licensure. State certifications are often seen for professions such as teaching, social work, etc. where a state-issued license is required for an individual to practice. As with accreditation, graduation from a state-certified program does not always guarantee that an individual will be licensed, but it may expedite the process. Some states have reciprocity agreements that allow for professional licensure based licensure in another state.
The U.S. Department of Education recognizes numerous institutional and specialized accrediting associations—the Department does not accredit institutions of higher education nor does it authorize them to operate as degree-granting institutions. However, eligibility for Federal financial aid is determined by an institution’s accreditation and state authorizations and by detailed, written agreements between a school and the Department.