How Institutions are Accredited
Institutions of higher education in the United States seek accreditation through two types of accreditation agencies, institutional and specialized. Institutional accreditation agencies are classified as regional and national.
National accreditation associations focus on certain types of colleges such as trade and technical institutions, or religious colleges such as seminaries and bible colleges.
Regional accreditation agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit degree granting colleges and universities. There are six regions of the U.S. in which regional agencies operate. The regional accreditation agencies have similar standards for accrediting colleges and universities.
Regional accreditation validates the quality of an institution as a whole and evaluates multiple aspects of an institution ranging from its academic offerings, governance and administration, mission, finances, and resources.
The Higher Learning Commission is a regional accreditation agency that accredits degree granting institutions of higher education that are based in the 19-state North Central region of the United States. Institutions that the Commission accredits are evaluated against the Commission’s Criteria for Accreditation, a set of standards that institutions must meet to receive and/or maintain accredited status. The Commission’s Criteria for Accreditation reflect a set of guiding values.
The accreditation process is based on a system of peer review. Approximately 1,300 educators from institutions of higher education serve as peer reviewers conducting accreditation evaluations for other institutions. Peer reviewers also serve on committees that make up the elements of the accreditation process.
The accreditation process:
An institution seeking to become accredited by the Higher Learning Commission must undergo a period of Candidacy status after proving that it meets the Commission’s Eligibility Requirements. The candidacy period is at maximum four years. An institution in Candidacy status is not accredited; rather it has met the Commission’s Eligibility Requirements and shows evidence that it is making progress toward meeting all the Criteria for Accreditation. Candidacy does not carry membership in the Commission and does not guarantee eventual accreditation.
Higher Learning Commission accreditation assures quality by verifying that an institution (1) meets threshold standards and (2) is engaged in continuous improvement. In addition, all institutions are required to complete an annual filing of the Institutional Update, undergo annual monitoring of financial and non-financial indicators, and adhere to Commission policies and practices on institutional change.
Peer reviewers trained in the Commissions standards evaluate institutions' demonstration of whether they meet the Criteria for Accreditation and make recommendations to the Commission’s decision-making bodies.
Institutional Actions Council (Decision-making Body)
The Board of Trustees appoints and authorizes members of the Institutional Actions Council (IAC) to conduct reviews and take actions on the majority of accreditation recommendations. IAC members consist of representatives of academic institutions accredited by HLC, as well as members of the public. Detailed information on IAC processes is found in the Commission’s policies on decision-making.
In the interest of being transparent, the Commission is committed to providing information to the public regarding accreditation decisions made regarding individual institutions.
Actions that are taken by the Commission regarding an institution’s accreditation status are disclosed to the public. Beginning July 2013, in all cases of issuing continued accreditation, placing an institution on or resolving a sanction, or withdrawing accreditation, the Action Letter issued to the institution is made available for viewing and the institution’s status in the Commission’s online directory is updated. Public Disclosure Notices are also issued in cases of sanction to provide the public more detail of the issues leading to sanction.
Complaints against Institutions
Each year, the Commission receives a number of complaints about institutions from faculty, students, and other parties. The Commission has established a clear distinction between individual grievances and complaints that appear to involve broad institutional practices. Where a complaint does raise issues regarding the institution’s ongoing ability to meet the Criteria of Accreditation, the Commission forwards the complaint to the institution and requests a formal response.
Complaints relating to disputes between a student and faculty member, a faculty member and an administrator, or students and administrators, over such issues as billing, grading, financial aid, termination of employment or contract interpretation, are considered by the Commission to be individual disputes between the parties. Such disputes are best resolved by the parties through a campus ombudsman or grievance process or, failing such resolution, through a private mediator or the legal system. To help further resolution of such individual disputes, the Commission will, with the consent of the complainant, forward the complaint to the institution but will not conduct any formal inquiry or follow-up subsequent to forwarding the complaint.
A complainant is best served by bringing allegations of criminal conduct, such as fraud or conspiracy, to the attention of the state attorney general or the local U.S. attorney, who has the legal authority to conduct an appropriate and thorough investigation and bring criminal charges if appropriate.
As a private agency the Commission has no such investigatory or prosecutorial authority. In some cases, the complaint may indicate problems in the aggregate with organizational behavior or policies. If the Commission determines that such problems appear to be related to its expectations of an accredited or affiliated institution as outlined in the Commission’s accrediting standards and its policies, the Commission will conduct an inquiry, asking the CEO of the institution to respond to the broad issues, to describe its own internal inquiry into the matter, and to outline any remedial actions it has undertaken. With the complainant’s permission, the Commission will forward the complaint and supporting documentation to the institution as a part of its inquiry.