The United States has no Federal Ministry of Education or other centralized authority exercising single national control over postsecondary educational institutions in this country. The states assume varying degrees of control over education, but, in general, institutions of higher education are permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy. As a consequence, American educational institutions can vary widely in the character and quality of their programs.
In order to insure a basic level of quality, the practice of accreditation arose in the United States as a means of conducting non-governmental, peer evaluation of educational institutions and programs. Private educational associations of regional or national scope have adopted criteria reflecting the qualities of a sound educational program and have developed procedures for evaluating institutions or programs to determine whether or not they are operating at basic levels of quality.
There are two basic types of educational accreditation, one identified as "institutional" and one referred to as "specialized" or "programmatic."
Institutional accreditation normally applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution's parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution's objectives, although not necessarily all at the same level of quality. The various commissions of the regional accrediting associations, for example, perform institutional accreditation, as do many national accrediting agencies.
Specialized or programmatic accreditation normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are parts of an institution. The accredited unit may be as large as a college or school within a university or as small as a curriculum within a discipline. Most of the specialized or programmatic accrediting agencies review units within an institution of higher education that is accredited by one of the regional accrediting commissions. However, certain accrediting agencies also accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational institutions of higher education that are free-standing in their operations. Thus, a "specialized " or "programmatic " accrediting agency may also function in the capacity of an "institutional " accrediting agency. In addition, a number of specialized accrediting agencies accredit educational programs within non-educational settings, such as hospitals.
Accreditation does not provide automatic acceptance by an institution of credit earned at another institution, nor does it give assurance of acceptance of graduates by employers. Acceptance of students or graduates is always the prerogative of the receiving institution or employer. For these reasons, besides ascertaining the accredited status of a school or program, students should take additional measures to determine, prior to enrollment, whether or not their educational goals will be met through attendance at a particular institution. These measures should include inquiries to institutions to which transfer might be desired or to prospective employers and, if possible, personal inspection of the institution at which enrollment is contemplated.
For more than 50 years, there has been some type of nongovernmental coordinating agency for accreditation. This body, whatever its form, has existed primarily for the purpose of coordinating and improving the practice of accreditation. For example, the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA), which was established in 1974 and existed until December 1993, served as a nongovernmental organization whose purpose was to foster and facilitate the role of accrediting agencies in promoting and ensuring the quality and diversity of American postsecondary education. Through its Committee on Recognition, COPA recognized, coordinated, and periodically reviewed the work of its member accrediting agencies and the appropriateness of existing or proposed accrediting agencies and their activities, through its granting of recognition and performance of other related functions. COPA itself was created through the merger of two organizations: the National Commission on Accreditation, founded in 1949 as the first national organization to develop criteria and recognize accrediting agencies; and the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commission of Higher Education.
After COPA voted to dissolve in December 1993, a new entity, the Commission on Recognition of Postsecondary Accreditation (CORPA) was established in January 1994 to continue the recognition of accrediting agencies previously carried out by COPA until such time as a new national organization for accreditation could be established. CORPA was dissolved in April 1997 after the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) was created. CHEA is currently the entity that carries out a recognition function in the private, nongovernmental sector. Information about CHEA may be found on the agency's website, www.chea.org.