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Accreditation functions as quality control for the higher education sector, protecting the value of your educational investment. An accredited school or degree program delivers not only a high-quality education, but also eligibility for federal financial aid programs. The following higher education accreditation terms shed light on this important peer review system as it functions in the United States.

1. Accrediting agencies

Accrediting agencies are the organizations that establish and enforce quality standards for higher education institutions. Colleges and universities voluntarily apply to accrediting agencies for evaluation of their degree programs or the institution as a whole.

2. Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)

A national accrediting agency in the U.S., the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges evaluates and accredits private postsecondary institutions with technical and vocational programs. ACCSC accredits about 800 schools, representing a broad array of online degree programs, vocational certificates and college degrees through the master's level.

3. Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)

ACCET is a national accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for its evaluation of continuing education and vocational programs, including certificate, applied associate and online degree programs.

4. Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)

The Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools is an independent national accrediting agency in the U.S. that represents private postsecondary institutions, including many for-profit colleges. ACICS offers both institutional accreditation for private non-degree-granting schools and specialized accreditation for technical and vocational programs at the associate through master's degree level.

5. Application for continued recognition

The application for continued recognition refers to the written petitions accrediting agencies and accredited institutions must submit after a period of time in order to retain recognition. Accrediting agencies submit a continued recognition application to the U.S. Secretary of Education every five years. Agencies require member institutions to submit an accreditation renewal application at similar intervals.

6. Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA)

ASPA is an association representing specialized and professional accrediting agencies in the U.S. ASPA serves as an advocate and collective voice for approximately 60 member agencies.

7. Council for Higher Education Accreditation

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation, or CHEA, is a nonprofit association of approximately 3,000 degree-granting U.S. colleges and universities. CHEA serves as a national advocate for academic quality and voluntary accreditation in higher education. It recognizes 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations and maintains an international directory of accreditation bodies worldwide.

8. Council on Occupational Education (COE)

A national accrediting agency, the Council on Occupational Education focuses on the accreditation and pre-accreditation of postsecondary technical and vocational institutions and programs, including non-degree and associate-degree programs and online classes.

9. Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs

The U.S. Department of Education maintains a comprehensive database of all U.S. higher education institutions and programs accredited by ED- and CHEA-recognized accrediting agencies.

10. Diploma mill

A diploma mill is an institution that awards academic degrees or diplomas without recognition by an official, Department of Education-recognized accreditation agency.

11. Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)

The DETC is a national accreditor of online degree programs and institutions in the U.S. Recognized by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), DETC represents over 100 distance education programs.

12. Gap analysis

A gap analysis is a systematic evaluation of an applicant's performance relative to quality standards. The report covers strengths and weaknesses and offers strategies for institutional or programmatic improvement.

13. Higher education

Higher education refers to education beyond high school, available at four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, technical institutes and vocational schools. Also known as post-secondary or tertiary education, higher education may lead to a vocational certificate, associate or bachelor's degree, graduate degrees such as the master's and Ph.D. or professional degrees such as the M.B.A. and J.D.

14. Higher Education Act of 1965

The Higher Education Act of 1965 established the federal student financial aid program. Designed to strengthen U.S. higher education through financial assistance, the HEA provides federal funds for scholarships, low-interest loans and direct assistance to universities. Accreditation plays an important role in determining which institutions are eligible for federal funding.

15. Institutional accreditation

Institutional accreditation applies to an entire institution -- a university, college, or vocational school -- rather than a specific program. Some accrediting agencies perform only institutional evaluations, while others offer specialized evaluation on a program-by-program basis.

16. Monitoring

Monitoring refers to the accreditor's ongoing oversight of a member institution's compliance between official evaluation periods, either through the institution's written evidence or site visits.

17. National accrediting agencies

National accrediting agencies evaluate institutions with a nationwide or worldwide scope, including many for-profit institutions and career training institutes. The U.S. Secretary of Education recognizes over 50 national accreditors.

18. National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI)

NACIQI is an 18-member committee that evaluates accrediting agencies and recommends agencies to the U.S. Secretary of Education for national recognition. It was established in 1992.

19. Non-governmental organization (NGO)

A non-governmental organization is a legally recognized group independent of government. NGOs are typically nonprofit organizations established to promote a social or political aim, often in an international context. The term originated in the United Nations, and today describes 40,000 international organizations and many more national nonprofits. U.S. higher education accreditors and the Council For Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) are NGOs, operating as private, independent organizations.

20. On-site evaluation

The accreditation process generally culminates in an on-site review, in which the evaluating team visits the institution to verify compliance with quality standards. The on-site evaluation may involve interviews, class observations and a tour of campus facilities.

21. Peer review team

The peer review team conducts the on-site accreditation review. The team is generally made up of higher education administrators, curriculum specialists and/or faculty members from other member institutions.

22. Performance indicators

Also called management indicators, performance indicators are metrics that accreditation evaluators use to measure the performance or improvement of an institution. Indicators include admission and graduate data, research records, graduate employment, cost per student, faculty-student ratios, staff workload, class size, libraries and laboratory facilities.

23. Pre-accreditation

Pre-accreditation indicates an accreditation "work in progress". An accrediting agency confers this status on a higher education institution or program that is progressing toward compliance and is expected to achieve accreditation within a specified time period.

24. Probation

Probation is a limbo state of temporary accreditation. This conditional accreditation is designed to recognize programs that are currently taking steps to meet accreditation standards.

25. Professional accrediting agencies

The Education Department and Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognize special accreditors for professional and certain academic degree programs. Prominent professional accreditors include the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Association of American Medical Colleges.

26. Publication

Following successful accreditation, the accrediting body publishes a list of member institutions and/or programs in good standing. Accreditors also release publications detailing quality standards and guidelines.

27. Quality assurance

Quality assurance denotes a system or process designed to ensure that a product or service meets standards of quality. In higher education, accreditation functions as the QA mechanism. Accrediting agencies conduct an evaluation to assess institutional quality and if appropriate, accredit the college, university or program.

28. Reciprocity

Reciprocity establishes equivalence among different accrediting agencies. Accrediting agencies with mutual reciprocity agreements recognize each other's accreditation decisions, even though their criteria may not be the same.

29. Reevaluation

Reevaluation is the periodic quality assessment of existing member institutions to determine continued adherence to standards and eligibility for an accreditation renewal.

30. Regional accrediting agencies

Regional accrediting agencies evaluate K-12 and postsecondary institutions located in specific regions of the country. The U.S. Secretary of Education recognizes six regional accreditors for higher education: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (Higher Learning Commission), Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Regional agencies accredit the majority of public and nonprofit higher education institutions in the U.S.

31. Renewal of the GI Bill for Korean War veterans (Veterans' Adjustment Act of 1952)

Higher education accreditation dates back to the reauthorization of the GI Bill for Korean War veterans in 1952. The federal government needed a quality review process to vet the higher education institutions eligible for GI Bill funds, and began publishing a list of federally recognized accredited institutions.

32. Self-study

Self-study is generally the first step in the accreditation process. Institutions have the opportunity to conduct a self-assessment using the accrediting authority's quality standards and guidelines. Self-study allows institutions to identify and correct any deficiencies in advance of the agency's on-site evaluation.

33. Specialized or programmatic accreditation

Specialized or programmatic accreditation evaluates specific programs, departments or schools within a postsecondary institution rather than the institution as a whole. Specialized accrediting agencies may also accredit educational programs outside of a higher education institution, such as a hospital or corporate training institute.

34. Standards

Standards are the quality benchmarks accrediting agencies use to evaluate a program or institution's quality for accreditation.

35. State accrediting agencies

State accrediting agencies play a limited role in higher education accreditation. They are authorized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit postsecondary vocational education and nurse education. State accreditors include New York State Board of Regents, Oklahoma Board of Career and Technology Education, Pennsylvania State Board of Vocational Education and various state boards of nursing. The New York State Board of Regents is the only agency with a broader mandate, extending to some academic degree-granting institutions in the state.

36. Substantial equivalency

In the absence of a reciprocity agreement, substantial equivalency certifies a non-U.S. program as equivalent in quality to similar programs in the United States.

37. Title IV institution

A Title IV institution is an accredited postsecondary school, college or university eligible for federal student financial assistance under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. To be eligible, an institution must seek accreditation from a recognized accrediting body and complete a Program Participation Agreement with the U.S. Secretary of Education.

38. U.S. Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education is a Cabinet-level department in the United States federal government. The Department of Education establishes the policy for and administers federal assistance to schools nationwide, and collects data on the U.S. public education system. The Department of Education also administers the federal student aid program for college students and assists accreditation by recognizing national accrediting agencies.

39. U.S. secretary of education

The secretary of education is a member of the U.S. presidential cabinet and the head of the U.S. Department of Education. The secretary does not directly oversee accreditation, but publishes a list of recognized national accrediting agencies based on guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).

40. Withdrawn accreditation

A withdrawn accreditation status indicates that the program is no longer accredited by a particular accrediting body. The institution may voluntarily withdraw accreditation, or the agency may determine that the applicant no longer qualifies for accreditation.