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Historic Overview of Accreditation

Accreditation of post-secondary education in the United States grew out of attempts in the late 1800’s by certain colleges and universities to achieve more meaningful relationships between themselves and secondary schools. Students were being admitted to institutions of higher learning with unequal academic preparation causing these colleges and universities to be little more than secondary schools.

Coupled with this was the beginning of movement of students from one institution of higher learning to another through a formal transfer process. This was occurring between institutions within any one state and between states. Students transferring wanted to be sure that credits earned at one institution would transfer to another.

Another factor – protection of the public against incompetent and/or poorly trained professionals – exerted its own set of pressures that added impetus to the accrediting movement. For example, the Flexnor Report of 1910 generally is credited with forcing many poor or marginal medical schools to close and marked the beginning of professional self-regulation in this country.

There came into existence, not many years apart, two classifications of educational accreditation – one known as regional, the other referred to as specialized or programmatic – and both have survived to the present time. The former came to be practiced through associations of colleges and universities within defined geographical areas of the country (South, North Central, Middle Atlantic, New England, West and Northwest). Specialized accreditation grew out of a desire on the part of professional bodies to insure the quality of education given to practitioners. The process generally has been conducted by professional disciplinary societies or associations, which in turn, are controlled by their individual members.

The disciplines of law and medicine were the first to establish formal accrediting processes. By the end of the 1920’s, accreditation was initiated in such specialized fields as landscape architecture, library science, music, nursing, teacher education and business education. There followed in the 1930’s similar activity in chemistry, dentistry, engineering, forestry, pharmacy, social work, theology and veterinary medicine. Today, more than sixty fields in post-secondary education are subject to specialized accreditation conducted through the direct or indirect involvement of several times as many national organizations and thousands of individuals.

Historically and currently, accreditation at the post-secondary level is intended to:

  • Foster excellence in post-secondary education through the development of criteria and guidelines for assessing educational effectiveness;

  • Encourage improvement through continuous self-study and planning;

  • Assure the educational community, the general public and other agencies or organizations that an institution or program has both clearly defined and appropriate objectives, maintains conditions under which their achievement can reasonably be expected, appears in fact to be accomplishing them substantially, and can be expected to continue to do so;

  • Provide counsel and assistance to established and developing institutions and programs;

  • Encourage differences in innovation among American post-secondary education institutions to achieve their particular objectives and goals; and

  • Endeavor to protect institutions against encroachment, which might jeopardize their educational effectiveness or academic freedom.



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