Federal Accreditation Law and Regulations

In order for U.S. institutions of higher education to receive federal funds (and for their students to be eligible for federal student aid), institutions must be accredited by a federally recognized accrediting agency. Accrediting agencies gain this recognition through either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). In order to successfully gain federal recognition, accrediting agencies must demonstrate that they are enforcing the federal government's standards for recognition by assessing the degree to which institutions monitor student success, fiscal responsiblity, credentials offered, and other measures of quality.

With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 2008, colleges and universities are being held to some of the strictest accountabiltiy requirements ever. The legislation includes many reporting requirements, such as textbook prices, student loan policies, tuition increases, placement of and types of employment obtained by graduates, and student learning outcomes, to name a few. Who will be the enforcers of this push for increased accountability? Accrediting agencies.

Notably, the legislation prevents the Department of Education from requiring accreditors to assess colleges' performance on student learning. It is left it to individual colleges and universities to develop their own standards to show their success in student achievement. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 also includes the following provisions vis a vis accreditation:

  • Due process: The act prescribes due-process procedures for adverse actions by accreditors. For example, an accreditor's appeal body must be separate from its initial decision-making body and must be subject to a conflict of interest policy. Accreditors must allow institutions to submit new evidence during an appeal process when the accreditor's adverse action is based solely on failure to meet financial standards and new evidence consists of "significant financial information" unavailable before the adverse action.
  • Distance education: The Department of Education shall not require an accreditor to have separate standards, procedures or policies for evaluation of distance education. Accreditors must, however, require institutions that offer distance education to establish that a student registered for a distance education course is the same student who completes and receives credit for it.
  • Respect for mission: The act requires accreditors to apply standards that respect the stated mission of institutions, including religious missions.
  • Transparency in accreditation: Accreditors must make publicly available a summary of their actions, including adverse actions such as probation, the reasons for the adverse action and the affected institution's official comments concerning final denial or withdrawal of accreditation.
  • National Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI): The Act restructures NACIQI, which advises the Department of Education on recognizing accreditors and related matters. In the past, the secretary of education has appointed all NACIQI members. Under the act, the secretary and members of the House of Representative and the Senate from both parties will appoint 12 members (six from each body). Membership will expand from 15 to 18 and appointment terms will increase from three to six years. Current members' terms will end on the date of enactment of the act.
  • Diploma mills: The act defines "diploma mill" for the first time. ED will maintain information and resources on its Web site to help students, families and employers identify and avoid diploma mills, and will continue to participate in interagency efforts to combat them1.

Read the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act here. See PART H—PROGRAM INTEGRITY for the federal government's standards for accreditation.

 1. ACE Analysis of Higher Education Act Reauthorization. Last accessed August 26, 2009 at: http://www.niu.edu/u_council/attachments/2008-2009/ACEAnalysis.html