Accreditation has proven highly successful over the years. The existence of an effective non-governmental means for assessing academic quality makes possible the diversity and independence of U.S. institutions of higher education. As such, any changes made to accreditation must take into account individual institutions and their missions and must respect institutional autonomy.

Although accreditation long predates the enactment of the Higher Education Act (HEA), it is now an integral part of establishing institutional eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs. Thus, it is appropriate that there be some standards for the recognition of accreditors. However, accrediting agencies must not become surrogate government enforcement agencies, and uniformity should not be imposed on institutions in the name of accountability. In addition, the frank and open discussions that are essential to the success of the accreditation process must not be undermined through excessive disclosure requirements.

Maintaining an appropriate balance among institutions, accreditors, and the federal government has always been challenging. These challenges have grown as policymakers have envisioned more robust roles for accreditation in dealing with fraudulent institutionsassessing new education services and providers, and measuring student and institutional achievement. It is critical that policymakers seek an appropriate balance between assuring federal accountability and preserving distinctive institutional missions and approaches. In addition, they must avoid assigning to accreditors responsibilities that they are neither designed nor equipped to handle. 


Accreditation is a process of peer review and self-study designed to assist institutions of higher education in maintaining and enhancing the quality of their educational offerings. It has allowed a diversity of institutions to flourish through its mission-based approach—helping make American higher education the standard for the world.

Accreditation is also a key component in establishing institutional eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs. As policymakers have sought to expand the role that accreditation plays in higher education, it has become increasingly challenging to maintain an appropriate balance among institutions, accreditors, and the federal government.

Federal Accreditation Policy

Since its enactment in 1965, the HEA has required institutions to be accredited by a recognized accreditor in order to participate in federal student aid programs. More detailed accreditation requirements were included in the 1992 amendments to the Act as part of a broader effort to protect program integrity.

In the early 2000s, the Department of Education attempted to use the accreditation process to require colleges and universities to adopt “bright-line” measures of student achievement. This effort prompted a strong response from the leadership of the six major educational associations, who concluded the efforts of the Department would fundamentally change the relationship among accreditors, institutions, and the federal government. Congress responded by including a provision in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) that prohibits the Department from regulating student achievement standards. The HEOA also revised the appointment process to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), which advises the Secretary of Education about the recognition of accreditation agencies.

Subsequently, concern about fraud and abuse in the student aid programs led to the issuance of regulations that included a federal definition of a “credit hour,” and assigned enforcement of the definition to accrediting agencies. Many members of Congress have also asserted that accreditors should play a central role in combatting fraud and abuse.

Similarly, the role of accreditation in the evaluation of non-traditional education providers has been the subject of wide-ranging discussions by policy analysts and lawmakers. For example, one initiative, known as EQUIP, is experimenting with means to provide federal aid for unaccredited programs.

The upcoming HEA reauthorization is likely to produce changes in accreditation policy.  Many legislators on both sides of the aisle appear to believe the current system of accreditation is insufficiently focused on outcomes. This view is reflected in HEA reauthorization bills proposed by House Republicans and Democrats during the 115th and 116th Congresses. Although the bills – the Republicans' PROSPER Act and the Democrats' Aim Higher Act and it's successor the College Affordability Act – varied considerably in many respects, each of the proposals would have required accreditors to shift from focusing on educational inputs to focusing on educational outputs. Importantly, neither bill included more controversial proposals, such as establishing states as accreditors.  Similar bills are expected to reemerge in the 117th Congress.

In 2018, the Department of Education established a negotiated rulemaking committee to revise regulations related to federal recognition of accrediting agencies.  The accreditation-related provisions in the final regulations, which reflect the consensus reached by the negotiated rulemaking committee, make the following changes:

  • Clarify the roles of the program integrity triad;
  • Allow more flexibility for accreditors and institutions to innovate;
  • Reemphasize the importance of institutional mission;
  • Allow regional accreditors to consider applications from outside their traditional regions;
  • Establish a definition of religious mission;
  • Simplify the federal recognition process;
  • Create a new category of “substantial compliance” for accreditors who have minor deficiencies in their recognition applications;
  • Streamline the accreditation review process for certain types of substantive changes;
  • Establish new transparency requirements for accreditors to meet;
  • Permit accreditors to apply alternative accreditation standards to institutions;
  • Allow institutions additional time to become compliant with accreditation standards;
  • Modify institutional disclosure requirements; and
  • Strengthen requirements governing the teach-out process.

The new accreditation rules went into effect on July 1, 2020. Since publication of the final regulations, at least two regional accreditors – the WASC Senior College and University Commission and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education – have announced they will consider applications from institutions of higher education located outside of their traditional regions.

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NAICU Washington Updates

What You Can Do

  • Be engaged with the accreditation process. Peer review can be effective only so long as practitioners are actively involved.
  • Let your Senators and Representative know about the value and importance of maintaining an independent accreditation system. 


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