Higher Education accreditation in the United States was developed “to protect public health and safety and to serve the public interest.” The process of accreditation gradually evolved along three parallel paths, commonly referred to as the Triad, forged by the development of peer-evaluation amongst institutions and accrediting agencies, and the development of regulation, legislation and oversight by state governments, and the federal government.
The first regional accrediting agencies formed in the 1880s with particular focus on educational standards and admissions procedures. The need to develop transfer of credit policies and equivalency of degrees between the United States and foreign countries drove the process towards national standards. In the early stages accreditation standards were developed on a regional basis, but gradually national accreditation standards were developed to provide minimum quality standards throughout the United States. Simultaneously with the development of regional agencies, professional schools also began developing new accreditation standards. In 1912, a group of 23 private career schools created ACICS (then called the National Association of Accredited Commercial Schools), which became one of the first national accrediting agencies.
The American Council on Education (ACE) was formed in 1918, a national association for higher education institutions interested in standardization, effectiveness and reducing duplication in the accreditation process. By the 1930’s accreditation had become a well established element of the higher education landscape.
The end of World War II and the advent of the GI Bill saw an increase of professional and specialized accrediting agencies that were national in scope. They became the impetus for the formation of new national agencies that sought to coordinate the efforts of various sectors of the higher education community. In 1949, efforts were underway to deal with the rapid expansion, and the major national higher education associations came together to create a national association on institutional accreditation called the National Commission on Accrediting (NCA). The Regional accrediting agencies also formed the National Committee of Regional Accrediting agencies (NRCAA), later to be renamed the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commissions of Higher Education (FRACHE).
In 1952, Congress passed the Veteran’s Readjustment Assistance Act, which mandated the U.S. Secretary of Education (then Commissioner of Education) to publish a list of recognized accreditation associations. “The federal government implicitly asserted that accrediting agencies were the most reliable source for determining the quality of education and training of institutions of higher education, and began relying on non-governmental accreditation.” ACICS was soon recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 1956, four years after the federal recognition process was introduced.
In 1965, Congress enacted the Higher Education Act, which regulates accreditation in the United States. The Higher Education Act is periodically reviewed by Congress, and most recently Congress revised and passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. Congress authorizes the U.S. Department of Education to develop rules to implement The Higher Education Act. The Higher Education Act also gives the Department of Education authority to oversee the disbursement of Title IV funding.
In 1975 the self-regulating accrediting agencies sought to improve the process of accreditation and NCA and FRACHE merged to create a national organization with a wide membership base called the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA). Through COPA, accrediting agencies sought to provide a unified process of recognizing accrediting agencies through peer-review evaluation, and to improve quality assurance amongst member institutions in the United States.
To be more effective in dealing with Higher Education challenges that arose in the late 1980s and early 1990s, COPA was eventually replaced with the Council for Higher Education (CHEA) in 1996. Today ACICS is one of only two national accrediting agencies recognized both by the U.S. Department of Education and CHEA.