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Types of Accreditation

Institutional Accreditation

Institutional accreditation is an overall review of the entire university and is typically performed by a country’s national or regional accrediting body (such as the six regional accrediting bodies in the United States). These national or regional agencies perform a review of the entire university, from its operating budgets to its student services.

Depending on where the university is located, it must be approved by one of these agencies in order to grant degrees and be considered legitimate in the country in which it operates. In most cases, institutional accreditation must be maintained, requiring the institution to be reviewed every few years.

Specialized Accreditation

Once institutional accreditation is earned, universities can take accreditation a step further and seek "specialized," "programmatic" or "professional" accreditations for each of its disciplines. Specialized reviews are performed by nongovernmental, private agencies that are knowledgeable about a particular field of study. For example, a Department of Nursing can apply for specialized accreditations that specifically review its medical programs.

Specialized accreditation communicates to other schools, potential employers, and the general public that the university’s degree programs in a particular field have passed a rigorous review, and that students are learning all they need to know about that area of study. Specialized accreditation also must be maintained. It can affect the ability of students/graduates to find employment, transfer classes between universities, and pursue additional degrees at other institutions. However, not all specialized accreditations are alike. Some are recognized only within its home country, while others are recognized worldwide.  In addition, there are specialized accreditations that only evaluate community/vocational colleges and two-year programs, and those that include undergraduate, master's, and doctoral degree programs.

Additional Information

In the United States, institutions of higher education are permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy. The United States has no Ministry of Education or other centralized federal authority exercising control over the quality of postsecondary educational institutions, and the states assume varying degrees of control over education. As a consequence, American educational institutions can vary widely in the character and quality of their programs. To ensure a basic level of quality, the practice of accreditation arose in the United States as a means of conducting nongovernmental, peer evaluation of educational institutions and programs.

There are two basic types of educational accreditation, one referred to as "institutional" and the other referred to as "specialized" or "programmatic."  Institutional accreditation applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution's parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution's objectives. 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 agencies review units within an institution of higher education that is accredited by an institutional accrediting agency. However, certain agencies also accredit professional schools and other specialized or vocational institutions of higher education that are freestanding in their operations. Thus, a "specialized" or "programmatic" agency may also function in the capacity of an "institutional" agency. Some of these “institutions” are found within non-educational settings, such as hospitals.