Higher Education Accreditation

Table of Contents

The Change Leader's Higher Education Accreditation Consulting Services – Specializing in Institutional Accreditation for Colleges and Universities in the US and Abroad

Why is College and University Accreditation Important?

Higher education accreditation is one of the major determinants students use to decide whether or not to attend your university.

Because accreditation is required to receive any kind of federal funding, you must maintain satisfactory accreditation status from your accreditor for your students to receive tuition assistance.

Additionally, whether or not you are accredited may determine whether your graduates’ degrees are recognized by other institutions should they decide to go for a graduate degree, or if credits from your institution are transferable. And many employers require an institution to be accredited to pay for employee tuition reimbursement and assistance.

In other words, accreditation is not something you should leave to chance.

Higher ed accreditation is the validation of all the work that you and your staff have done to ensure that students are receiving the quality education they deserve. It is the “grade book” that attests to your faculty’s qualifications, your programmatic and student learning outcomes, and your academic rigor. You have undergone a rigorous review and evaluation from experts in your field, and your institution has received a “stamp of quality” from your accrediting agency.

All these are critical for growing and maintaining the financial health of your institution. 

Benefits of Good Higher Ed Accreditation Practices

Good accreditation practices enable a higher education institution to:

Set high standards for academic excellence and performance

Set the institutional direction and key policies, and ensure adherence to the mission

Create a culture of results and continuous improvement that permeates the institution

Maintain the financial health of the institution

Builds a culture of assessment and data-driven decision-making to ensure programs remain relevant

Create a shared vision of institutional excellence across your campus​

Operate with the highest integrity and ensure its institutional reputation remains excellent

Remain in good standing with your accreditor and be eligible to receive Title IV funding

Signs Your Accreditation Processes Needs Improvement

There are many telltale signs that an institution’s accreditation practices aren’t functioning properly. Unfortunately, many of them are things that institutions have done and/or lived with for many years, saying “this is our institutional culture / just the way we do things.” In reality, these are red flags that tell us that your institution is at risk for sanctions or something worse.


Your accreditor has put your institution on sanctions: warning, probation, or show cause


You have not conducted "mock interviews" with people the visiting team will meet


Your visiting team visit is 1 year out, and you've not begun the institutional self-study


Your institution hasn't completed a programmatic assessment or review in the last two years


Your accreditation liaison officer is preparing the entire self-study by him/herself


Your institution doesn't have a full-time person assigned to accreditation


Your board is not monitoring preparations for the institution's accreditation visit


Your Accreditation Liaison Officer has not briefed the academic affairs committee in over a year


Your board is not aware / does not follow your accreditor's board independence policies

Best Practices for Higher Education Accreditation

There are a number of higher education accreditation best practices that institutions should follow to ensure they are helping their institutions be successful in gaining and keeping their accreditation. These include:

Higher Education Accreditation Best Practices Include:

Create a team to work on the accreditation self-study report, and hold them accountable for its completion

Conduct mock interviews with all people (faculty, staff, students, board, administration) who will come in contact with the visiting team

Create a culture of continuous improvement through institutional research, program assessment, and program review

Monitor student achievement indicators, e.g., retention, graduation rates, student learning, job placement, ensuring they remain high

Review annually its accreditor’s standards, including policies and procedures, to ensure you continue to meet their standards

Provide board oversight of the institution’s accreditation process to ensure the institution’s reputation remains high

Provide reports at least annually to the board and academic affairs committee on the status of the accreditation efforts

Conduct program assessment annually and program review every five years

Use an external examiner for an objective perspective on your readiness for your accreditation visit

Provide your accreditor updates at least every 6 months, and every 3 months in the year prior to your next accreditation visit

How We Help Our Clients

Dr. Drumm McNaughton and our higher ed accreditation consulting services provide accreditation and regulatory compliance experts who can help guide you through the Higher Ed accreditation processes. Our consulting experts will be your guide whether you are looking for initial accreditation, re-accreditation, or getting you off sanctions.

We’ve been there before – we’ve served on accreditation teams with multiple accreditors. We’ve been on the receiving end of accreditation visits. We have assisted multiple colleges and universities with institutional and programmatic accreditation, including getting them off sanctions.

We know what is needed to earn and keep your accreditation and can help you through any stage of the process.

Our consultants have helped higher education institutions not only get back on track but create strategic plans that ensure they stay in good standing in the future when it comes to accreditation and regulatory compliance.

Some client results include:

  • Helped a 100-year-old institution get off probation with its regional accreditor. Transformed and reorganized nearly all aspects of the institution, helped write the self-study and answered inquiries from the accreditor, and prepared them for the accreditation visit.

  • Assisted an institution in compiling its self-study. The institution came to The Change Leader two months before its submission date without a decent first draft of its report. TCL coached the client through the entire process, from self-study to mock interviews, and the institution received its initial accreditation for the first time.

  • An institution was two weeks away from its Accreditation Visiting Team visit and realized its assessment program was not up to snuff for regional accreditation. In two weeks, TCL created a Program Assessment and Review, and Curricular Development Manual, enabling the institution to receive its initial accreditation and a commendation for its assessment activities.

  • Received mention from the accreditation special visiting team in their report because of the multiple changes and the high level of preparation the institution did to be ready.

  • Created the framework for an institution to go through its initial accreditation process (from eligibility to candidacy), and prepared them for the accreditor’s site visit.

  • Prepared an institution for an in-depth special visit by conducting “mock interviews” with all people who were scheduled to meet with the special visiting team. The institution passed the visit with “flying colors” and was taken off probation by its accreditor.

  • Created new board structures that enabled better and more transparent communications with faculty, staff, and stakeholders, increasing board engagement with campus leadership and stakeholders.

Institutional Accreditation and Programmatic Accreditation in the United States

Institutional Accreditation

For institutional accreditation, there are 36 institutional accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. These include the seven former “regional accreditors” listed  below as 1-7, and others which were formerly called “national” accreditors:


  1. Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC)
  2. Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  3. Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  4. New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  5. Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  6. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on College (SACSCOC)
  7. WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
  8. Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC)
  9. The Association for Biblical Higher Education, Commission on Accreditation (ABHE)
  10. Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission (TRACS)
  11. Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
  12. Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS)
  13. Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)


Programmatic Accreditation

For programmatic accreditation, there are specialized accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Some examples of these accrediting bodies include:

  1. Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International)
  2. Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP)
  3. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET)
  4. American Bar Association (ABA)
  5. Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  6. National Association of Schools of Music (NASM)


It’s important to note that accreditation requirements and recognition can vary by state and by program. It’s important to verify that an accrediting body is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education before considering it as a credible accrediting agency.

Higher Education Accreditation Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Most frequent questions about higher education accreditation consulting services

What is higher education accreditation?

Higher education accreditation is the process by which an accreditor reviews and attests to the quality of the education students receive at an institution.

In other words, accreditation “certifies” the quality of an institution and is one of the primary ways that students, families, government officials, and the press know that an institution or program provides a quality education.


Why does my institution need accreditation?

You don’t. BUT…

One of the most important criteria that prospective students look for in an institution is its accreditation status. By this, they know that they will be getting a quality education that will be recognized by employers and other institutions should they transfer and/or desire to go to graduate school / further their education.

Additionally, if you would like to be able to receive federal funding so that students can attend who need financial aid, you must be accredited by your accreditor and be approved by the Education Department to receive Title IV funding.


Does my institution need to be accredited to receive federal funding?


Federal funding (Title IV) and other types of federal financial aid that students can use to pay for their education can only be given to higher education institutions that are accredited by a nationally-recognized accreditor.

There are two parts to this – the accreditation of the institution, and its recognition by the Education Department.

Accreditation is granted by one of the 20+ accreditors recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. As part of the accreditation process, the Department of Education requires certain forms to be filled out that, once the institution is accredited, allow for it to be recognized by the Department as being eligible to receive Title IV funding.


How long does it take for my institution to get accredited?

This depends on the accreditation body.

Some accreditors will get an institution through the accreditation process in less than three years, whereas others can take up to eight years. Some of this depends on the readiness of the institution, but some accreditors (e.g., ABHE) specify it will take eight years for an institution to get through their process.


What are the steps to get accredited?

Generally, there are five steps for your university or college to become accredited.

  1. Consultation with the accreditation body. This can be a one-hour-long conversation, or it can require the institution to attend a two-day orientation on accreditation and the accreditor’s process. This can normally not take place until an institution has received state licensure.

  2. Eligibility. Most accreditors require an institution to submit a written report on how they meet multiple standards to gain eligibility to enter the accreditation process. With some accreditors, there may be 15 standards. With others, over 30.

  3. Completing the Self-study Report. Once an institution is granted eligibility to enter the accreditation process, their next step, Candidacy, requires the institution to submit their self-study report that details how they meet their accreditors standards and undergo an accreditation visiting team visit. For some accreditors, the self-study is a preformatted report that you “fill in the blanks” on how you meet the standards. For others, it is a free-flowing report organized by the standards. In either case, it is a very detailed report (with attachments as evidence) that demonstrates how you meet the accreditor’s standards. This report is submitted 6-8 weeks prior to an accreditation team visiting your institution.

  4. Accreditation Visiting Team visit. To be awarded Candidacy or Initial Accreditation, all institutions must undergo an accreditation visiting team visit. This normally occurs 6-8 weeks after you have submitted your self-study. The visit itself is normally 2-4 days long, and its purpose is to validate what you have said in your self-study. The accreditation visiting team (which is made up of 3-5 people) will meet with various stakeholders at your institution to validate what you have said in your self-study. Following the visit, the team will write up their visit, and after you have had a chance to review it for factual accuracy, it will be submitted to the accreditor’s Commission, which is in essence its board of directors.

    There are three critical items that come out of the visiting team report: commendations, suggestions, and recommendations. 

    There are three critical items that come out of the visiting team report: commendations, suggestions, and recommendations.

    • Commendations are things that your institution has done well.
    • Suggestions are things that you can improve upon but do not meet the same level as recommendations (think of these as best practices).
    • Recommendations are things that you must address prior to your next visit, and more than likely will be asked about them when you meet with the Commission.

  5. Commission Review. The last step of the accreditation process is the Commission review. The Commission, which has the final say on the accreditation status of an institution, will review the visiting team report, and you will have an opportunity to meet with them to discuss their findings and make comments. Following that meeting, they will issue what some accreditors call a “commission action letter,” a short letter (usually 3-5 pages) that details their findings (based on the visiting team report and their meeting with you), and your next steps (e.g., initial accreditation with length of accreditation and any midcycle / special visits required, Candidacy and the length of time they expect your institution will need to prepare for a second accreditation visiting team visit, etc.). An important point to remember: it is the Commission which makes the decision on the accreditation status of an institution, not the visiting team.


What is the difference between regional and national accreditation?

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), there are three types of institutional accreditors – regional, national, and faith-based.

Regional accreditors (e.g., WSCUC, HLC, NECHE, MSCHE, SACSCOC, & NWCCU) are generally considered to be more prestigious and more widely recognized as accreditation bodies. National accreditors (e.g., DEAC, ACCET, etc.) are generally national-career type accreditors. Faith-based accreditors (ABHE, TRACS, etc.) are just that – they accredit faith-based schools.

There are six regional accreditors (seven, if you include ACCJC, which is considered part of WASC), eight national/career accreditors, and five faith-based accreditors recognized by CHEA.

Up until the Negotiated Rulemaking 2019 process, a distinction was made between regional and national accreditors. However, the NegReg 2019 process removed the distinction between national and regional accreditors; they are all now known as accreditors. Still, “old habits die hard,” and most people still refer to regional and national accreditation, and believe that regional accreditation is the most prestigious.


What is the difference between institutional and programmatic accreditation?

Institutional accreditation is the process by which a college or university is accredited by one (or more) of the 20+ accreditors recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

Examples of institutional accreditors include WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC – regional), Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC – national), and Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE – faith-based).

Programmatic accreditation is a specialty accreditation that accredits the individual programs within a school vs. the entire institution. There are 75 programmatic accreditors in the US. Examples of programmatic accreditation include Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP), Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), and Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA).

Most institutions have both institutional accreditation and programmatic accreditation.


Is assessment important for accreditation, and if so, why?

Assessment is considered by accreditation bodies to be the bedrock for making sound programmatic decisions, and more and more, institutions are being held to higher standards of what is called “data-driven decision-making.” A good part of this is your programmatic assessment and review processes, as well as your institutional review (IR) processes.
Most accreditors require continuous improvement of its programs based on program assessment and program review, and institutions must be able to demonstrate not only that they continue to improve their programs, but the process by which they do this.

What is higher education program assessment and program review?

Universities are made up of a collection of programs, each with their own goals (student learning outcomes), which together must accomplish the overarching mission of the institution. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to operate. Which is why there is program assessment and program review – to ensure institutions’ programs are meeting high standards of quality and student learning outcomes.

Higher ed program review is the process by which higher education institutions conduct a rigorous, objective evaluation of the effectiveness of a particular program. Normally, program review is completed every five years and involves an external auditor.

Done correctly, program review enables institutions to understand how to improve programs as well as identify future needs.

Program assessment is the annual examination of each program. It is similar to program review in that it should assessment the efficacy of the program in meeting its student learning outcomes, but program review is far more in-depth, and generally consists of both internal and external examinations of programs, whereas program assessment is an internal examination only.


How do you know when a program has become irrelevant or needs retiring?

There are many indicators for when a program has grown beyond the means of an institution, lost relevance, become unprofitable, or taken an institution away from its stated mission. Some of these are declining and/or low enrollment within a program, failure to achieve programmatic accreditation or re-accreditation, faculty forcing use of their own textbooks vs. up-to-date journal articles and open source materials, or the program does not prepare students for their career by teaching the relevant skills and abilities.

These are some of the reasons why program assessment and program review are so critical – to ensure programs remain relevant and teach students the skills they need in the job marketplace.

Institutions who suspect programs are becoming irrelevant and/or need retiring should do an academic prioritization and restructuring, something The Change Leader can help you with.


What can The Change Leader do to help me with program assessment and program review?

The Change Leader’s consultants will help you succeed by conducting institutional and/or programmatic assessments and evaluations, either independently or as part of larger in-house projects. We assess and evaluate your programs to determine if they are meeting your goals and make recommendations on how to improve them (or to teach them out as appropriate).

The larger question is if those goals align with your institution’s goals.


What services does The Change Leader provide for assessment?

Assessment is the bedrock of making sound decisions, and The Change Leader leads the way in providing the necessary tools and expertise to help you understand and build your assessment process, something that is critical for your accreditation.

Whether they be developing formative or normative assessments, rubrics, program evaluations, or simply making sense of your data, The Change Leader’s team of higher ed experts can help you develop your programs and/or provide leadership in a wide range of activities related to the assessment of student learning. 

Do you have questions or want to improve on how you use assessment as a tool for improving your institutional outcomes? Contact us for a free 30-minute consultation.


How do I know my institution accreditation is in jeopardy?

There are many indicators that your accreditation might be in jeopardy.


    • Your Board members come to meetings and are not prepared.  They do not actively participate in the conversation but instead allow others to dominate the discussions
    • The president of the university sets the agenda for the meetings, and the board chair always goes along with the president
    • There is not enough time to discuss the critical things that come up at the meetings
    • There is no consent agenda for items that should have been discussed at board committees
    • There are no board committees, or those that are established operate in silos (they do not have overlapping members to facilitate broader discussions)
    • The board gets surprised by events that occur at the university
    • The board doesn’t question the president or doesn’t dive deeply into why the administration is doing/has done what it is doing
    • Board members are unwilling to hold the president and through the president, staff, accountable for their actions
    • There is a lack of transparency between the administration and the board
    • All items from the administration and stakeholders are delivered through the president – the “hour-glass” model of governance

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