In the United States, schools and colleges voluntarily seek accreditation from non-governmental bodies. There are two types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized. Institutional accreditation is provided by regional and national associations of schools and colleges. There are six regional associations, each named after the region in which it operates (Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern, Western). The regional associations are independent of one another, but they cooperate extensively and acknowledge one another’s accreditation. Several national associations focus on particular kinds of institutions (for example, trade and technical colleges, and religious colleges and universities). An institutional accrediting agency evaluates an entire educational organization in terms of its mission and the agency’s standards or criteria. It accredits the organization as a whole. Besides assessing formal educational activities, it evaluates such things as governance and administration, financial stability, admissions and student services, institutional resources, student learning, institutional effectiveness, and relationships with internal and external constituencies. A specialized accrediting body evaluates particular units, schools, or programs within an organization. Specialized accreditation, also called program accreditation, is often associated with national professional associations, such as those for engineering, medicine, and law, or with specific disciplines, such as business, teacher education, psychology, or social work.
The North Central Association
The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools was founded in 1895 for the purpose of establishing close relations between the colleges and secondary schools of the region. Throughout its history, the Association has been committed to the improvement of education at all levels through evaluation and accreditation. Today, the Association is a membership organization of colleges and schools in nineteen states (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming), Department of Defense schools, and the schools and colleges in sovereign U.S. tribal nations within the nineteen states. The Association controls the use of its name, logo, and intellectual property. Two independent corporations also hold membership in the Association. The Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (CASI), headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, accredits schools offering education at the kindergarten through twelfth-grade levels as well as non-degree-granting postsecondary schools. CASI works extensively through state committees throughout the region. The Higher Learning Commission, located in Chicago, accredits degree-granting organizations of higher education. The two Commissions are legally empowered to conduct accrediting activities for educational organizations.
In September 2012, the Higher Learning Commission began a three-year transition during which the Program to Evaluate an Advance Quality (PEAQ) will be replaced by two Pathways, the Standard Pathway and the Open Pathway. Arizona Western College has transitioned to the Open Pathway.
The Open Pathway seeks to achieve the following goals:
To enhance institutional value by opening the improvement aspect of accreditation so that institutions may choose Quality Initiatives to suit their current circumstances
To reduce the reporting burden on institutions by utilizing as much information and data as possible from existing institutional processes and collecting them in electronic form as they naturally occur over time
To enhance rigor by checking institutional data annually (Institutional Update) and conducting Assurance Reviews twice in the ten-year cycle
To integrate as much as possible all HLC processes and HLC requests for data into the reaffirmation of accreditation cycle