Who decides if your school is a good school (and what does the government have to do with it)? This question requires a basic understanding of state approval and accreditation.
In many countries, the government — perhaps their ministry of education — provides credible certification. In the United States, private accrediting agencies are trusted as the arbitrators of quality, but the government still plays a part in two significant ways.
State Approval of Schools
In the US, schools must have state approval before they can grant degrees, and accrediting agencies require state approval before a school can achieve their membership. State approval is generally considered much lower than accreditation and has different requirements in each state. Some states, however, have very difficult procedures (e.g., most states in the Northeastern United States). The rigor of state approval from New York, for example, is on par with the rigors of achieving accreditation. Thus, state approval from New York is the only state to which the US Department of Education will grant schools the right to distribute Title IV funds on the basis of that approval.
Many states have a religious exempt category of approval that is easier to achieve than degree granting approval, but has limits placed upon it. The meaning and requirements for religious exempt approval also vary significantly from state to state. State approval is the first step in an understanding of state approval and accreditation
US Government Approval of Accrediting Agencies
There is a second way that government in the United States is involved in certifying the quality of schools. While the US government does not evaluate colleges, it does approve (i.e., recognize) accrediting agencies. This system of recognition evolved when the country was flooded with servicemen returning from World War II.
In order to offer these veterans Federal Student Financial Aid (FAFSA), the government needed a method of determining which schools were worthy. Accrediting agencies had already demonstrated expertise in assessing higher education institutions. So, the government chose to use accreditation as the certification that schools would be worthy of receiving taxpayer dollars.
Of course, this required the government to become involved in recognizing (e.g., certifying) accrediting agencies. The US Department of Education accepts applications to distribute FAFSA dollars from colleges and other higher education institutions once they achieve candidate membership in a recognized accrediting agency.
If your school is accredited by an accrediting agency that is recognized by the department, your school will appear on the US Department of Education website: http://ope.ed.gov/accreditation/. For this reason, accreditation is considered “quasi-governmental.”
Does accreditation mean the government will tell your school what to teach?
While I do not doubt that there are some government officials with an unending hunger for how intrusive they can be into every arena of life, let us not become paranoid too soon. Since the Federal government is distributing money, the Department of Education will have a lot to say about how money is distributed and accounted for. It does not tell you what you can teach in your school.
Accreditation is not the tool of terrible tyrants. It is a certification of quality and a continuous quality-improvement process. It is the more important component in an understanding of state approval and accreditation.
Is your school ready to begin the journey to accreditation? Find out. Take the online survey in the lower right-hand corner of accreditation101.com.
Dr. David Agron leads an accreditation consulting firm which, since 1999, has specialized in helping Christian colleges achieve accreditation. Find information at www.accreditation101.com.