Middle States Commission on Higher Education


Frequently Asked Questions

What is accreditation?

Accreditation is a process of peer review that the educational community has adopted for its self-regulation since early in the 20th century. It is a voluntary process intended to strengthen and sustain the quality and integrity of higher education, making it worthy of public confidence. Institutions choose to apply for accredited status, and once accredited, they agree to abide by the standards of their accrediting organization and to regulate themselves by taking responsibility for their own improvement.

Types of Accreditors

In the United States, accreditors are non-governmental, private, non-profit organizations, and most accredit both private and public institutions. There are three types of accreditors:

  • Regional accreditors operate within specific geographic areas. The United States is divided into six regions, each with its own regional accrediting association, and the work of these associations is accomplished by seven commissions. The regional accreditors together are responsible for over 3,000 colleges and universities. 

  • Specialized accreditors are not limited to specific geographic areas, but they review particular programs within institutions that are also accredited by an institutional accreditor, such as programs in architecture, engineering, optometry, and pharmacy. A single institution may have multiple programs accredited by specialized accreditors.

  • National accreditors are not limited to specific geographic areas. They also accredit entire institutions, but they are more likely to review particular types of institutions, such as those that specialize exclusively in law, medicine, nursing, distance learning, and theology. 

As a regional accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education examines the entire institution, including its educational programs and curricula, student achievement, faculty, facilities and equipment, student support services, recruiting and admissions practices, the institution’s financial condition, administrative effectiveness, governing boards, and several other aspects of the institution. (See “About the Middle States Association and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education”)

Role of State and Federal Governments

Before a U.S. institution can become accredited, it usually must obtain a license from the state in which it is chartered, authorizing the institution to award a degree. Some states require accreditation as a pre-condition for licensing.

If a college or university wants its students to obtain loans and grants from the federal government through the Student Assistance Programs in Title IV of the Higher Education Act, as amended (HEA), the institution must have regional or national accreditation. There are some colleges in the United States that obtain only a license from their state and they are not accredited, but their students do not have access to federal funds.

The federal government, therefore, protects its financial interest by requiring accrediting organizations to ensure that their member institutions comply with certain federal regulations. To accomplish this oversight, it reviews in detail the operations of each accreditor at least every five years. The U.S. Secretary of Education then publishes a list of accreditors that are recognized as reliable authorities on the quality of colleges and universities (commonly called “gatekeepers”).

Organizations Related to Accreditation

In addition to oversight from the federal government, accreditors may seek voluntarily to be reviewed and recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which is a membership organization composed of the presidents of accredited institutions.

The coordinating organization for regional accreditors is the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC). The coordinating organization for many specialized accreditors is the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA).

For a list of the major organizations and government agencies that have an impact on the work of accreditors in the U.S., see “Other Organizations.”

Accreditors also may align themselves with international organizations that are working to ensure comparability among quality assurance agencies in other countries. See “Does Middle States meet international criteria as a quality assurance organization?”