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The History of Higher Education Accreditation

by Debbie Kaplan

One major reason that higher education programs are accredited is because of government loans and grants. In 1952, after passing the GI Bill in the aftermath of the Korean War, the federal government started relying heavily on school accreditation to make sure that it was spending its educational funding on schools that met minimum quality standards. The same accreditation restrictions apply to federal grants and loans--so a school's accreditation is one of the first things that students should check when looking into educational programs.

According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), accreditation indicates that the school and its programs have passed a quality review. Even for students not receiving financial aid, this matters. Students graduating from non-accredited schools might not be allowed to sit for licensing exams in some fields.

Accreditation Agencies
Today, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes 19 institutional accrediting organizations and approximately 60 programmatic accrediting organizations. These non-governmental, private institutions undergo periodic reviews, sometimes by the Department of Education, to ensure they're doing their jobs properly.

What Schools are Accredited?
Both the CHEA and U.S. Department of Education have searchable databases online that list accredited schools and programs.

  • More than 7,000 institutions are accredited
  • 62 percent of accredited schools grant at the minimum, associate's degrees
  • 37 percent of these schools don't grant degrees, but may be vocational programs
  • More than half the schools (54 percent) are non-profit institutions (the rest are for-profit)

A variety of school types are included in the mix, from religiously-affiliated schools providing degrees, to private career colleges, some granting degrees, some not.


With the avalanche of online schooling developments over the past decade, the challenge is to provide meaningful accreditation for them as well. Of the new programs, some were added by existing schools and some were created from scratch. Accreditation agencies often have independent standards for distance learning. If you're going to spend your money on education, whether online or on campus, maximize that investment by making sure the school is accredited.

Higher Education Accreditation
Council for Higher Education Accreditation
U.S. Department of Education

About the Author
Debbie Kaplan earned her bachelor's degree from an accredited university. She now writes on a variety of topics for online and print publications.
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