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Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions About Accreditation

Accreditation is a voluntary process of recognizing educational institutions for performance, integrity, and quality that entitles them to the confidence of the educational community and the public. In the United States this recognition is extended largely through nongovernmental, voluntary professional associations that have responsibility for establishing criteria, evaluating institutions against the criteria, and approving institutions that meet the criteria.

Accrediting associations are not associated with local or state government or with the federal government, although government agencies do rely on the accreditation of an institution in making student loan monies and other funds available to the institution. Accreditation can aid in the transfer of collegiate credit, but there are various kinds of institutions and accreditation, and transfer of credit between institutions is not automatic.

In American higher education, accreditation fulfills a number of important functions, including the encouragement of efforts toward maximum educational effectiveness. The accrediting process requires institutions and programs to examine their own goals, operations, and achievements, and then provides the expert criticism and suggestions of a visiting evaluation committee, and, later, the recommendations and judgments of the accrediting body. Since accreditation is reviewed periodically, institutions are encouraged toward continued self-study and improvement.

Accreditation by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities means that a higher education institution’s own goals are soundly conceived, that its educational programs have been intelligently devised, that its purposes are being accomplished, and that the institution is so organized, staffed, and supported that it should continue to merit confidence.

Evaluation activities are carried out by volunteers from accredited institutions. Periodically an institution is reevaluated (reaffirmed in accreditation) after a visit by peer evaluators. Institutions accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities undergo a comprehensive full-scale evaluation every seven years. The accrediting decisions are made by the representatives elected by the membership, along with representatives of the public. Accrediting decisions are not made by the staff of an accrediting association.

Additional information may be found in the Accreditation Handbook.

Organizations which accredit entire institutions are called institutional accrediting organizations. Those which evaluate free-standing professional or occupational schools or are limited to specific programs within an institution of higher education are called specialized accrediting organizations. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities is one of six institutional accrediting associations in the United States. These six associations are comprised of seven commissions serving higher education institutions. They examine all educational programs at an institution as well as the mission and core themes, student support services, library and information resources, and finance and facilities.

Institutional accrediting bodies focus on an institution as a total operating unit and provide assurance that the general characteristics of the institution have been examined and found to be satisfactory. Institutional accreditation, concerned with evaluating the institution as a whole, does not seek to deal with any particular program in great detail although programs are reviewed as a part of the consideration of the entire institution.

Specialized accrediting bodies focus on specific programs to ensure that the details of that particular program meet the external accreditation standards. Specialized accreditation, speaking to a specific program, does not seek to deal significantly with the general conditions of the institution, although certain general conditions are considered in the context in which the accredited program is offered.

Both institutional and specialized bodies conduct the accreditation process using a common pattern. The pattern requires integral self-study of the institution or program, followed by an on-site visit by an evaluation committee, and a subsequent review and decision by a central governing group. Within this general pattern the various accrediting bodies have developed a variety of individual procedures adapted to their own circumstances. Increasingly, attention has been given to educational outcomes as a basis for evaluation.

Institutional or specialized accreditation cannot guarantee the quality of individual graduates or of individual courses within an institution or program, but can give reasonable assurance of the context and quality of the education offered.

While many states have established regulations that must be met before an institution may operate, in most states such regulations represent a minimum basis for protection of students. State authorization should not be confused with institutional or specialized accreditation. An institution may have state authorization to operate, but it may not necessarily be accredited by an institutional or specialized accrediting association. In fact, an institution must have the appropriate authorization by a state to operate before it can seek accreditation with the Commission.

The purpose of accreditation is to provide public assurance of educational quality and institutional integrity. Various publications have begun institution ranking processes based on such factors as specific numerical details (e.g., size, tuition, and endowment), faculty selectivity, and public opinion. It is important to remember that colleges and universities differ from one another in significant ways, including mission, programs offered, and students served. Therefore, the important issue for each student is whether the institution meets its mission. Published rankings may be one source of information, but they should not be the only source.

The selection of a higher education institution is an individual decision, based on each student’s needs, interests and goals. There are so many different types of institutions (small, large, urban, rural, public, private, church-related, career-oriented, etc.) that matching the student’s interest and abilities to the characteristics of an institution requires detailed information about the student.

Information about institutions is found in various reference books and directories, which are available in many libraries. Students also are advised to consult with counselors or advisors in secondary schools, consult the admissions officers at institutions in which they are interested, and visit the campus.

No. Transferability of credits and degrees is a matter determined by the institution receiving the credits. Transferability depends on several factors. Among them are: the institution at which credits or degrees were earned, how well the credits offered for transfer mesh with the curriculum offered by the institution to which the student wishes to transfer, and how well the student did in the courses. Accreditation speaks only to the first of these factors and, therefore, cannot by itself guarantee transfer of credits; however, many institutions choose to accept transfer credits only from accredited institutions so that transfer of credits from an unaccredited institution may be excluded. Some institutions have specific agreements with other institutions guaranteeing transfer of credits. Anyone planning to transfer credits should, at the earliest opportunity, consult the receiving institution about the transfer before taking the courses for transfer, if possible. For additional information, see the Transfer and Award of Academic Credit Policy.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities has been listed since 1952 by the U.S. Secretary of Education as a nationally recognized accrediting agency for institutions offering programs of at least one academic year in length at the postsecondary level. Recognition was reaffirmed in 2023, and petitions renewal every 5 years. The Commission notifies the Department of any changes in the scope of its activities.

An institution seeking initial accreditation prepares an extensive report on itself based on the criteria set forth in the Accreditation Handbook. This period of extensive self-study is followed by an on site visit by a committee of peers selected by the Commission. Based on its findings, the committee makes a recommendation to the Commission regarding the accreditation status of the institution. The committee might recommend denial, candidacy, or initial accreditation. The Commission then acts to determine accreditation status and communicates its decision to the institution. Once accredited, an institution is expected to comply with the Eligibility Requirements and accreditation Standards continuously and must be evaluated periodically.

No. The Commission does not grant candidacy to an institution unless it has strong evidence that the institution can achieve accreditation within the candidacy period. However, attainment of candidacy does not automatically ensure eventual accreditation. The maximum length of candidacy is five years.

Institutions maintain accreditation through continuous adherence to accreditation criteria as set forth by the Commission. They follow a seven year cycle during which institutional review is continuous. These reviews include Annual Reports; a Mid-Cycle Report; a Polices, Regulations and Financial Review; and an Evaluation of Institutional Effectiveness comprehensive institutional self-study and evaluation committee peer review. Institutions are required to respond to Commission requests for any other reports.

When an institution fails to meet Commission standards, the Commission may decide to defer a decision on an institution’s accreditation, providing an opportunity for the institution to correct its problems within a limited period of time. The Commission also may take other steps, which are described in the Commission’s Public Notification About Affiliated Institutions Policy. These steps include warning an institution that its accreditation may be in jeopardy, placing an institution on probation, or requiring an institution to show cause why its accreditation should not be removed. Institutions have the right to appeal an adverse Commission decision, and the institution retains its accredited status during the appeal process.

Commission policy states that when an accredited or candidate institution is closing, all academic, financial aid information, and other records should be prepared for permanent filing. The institution should arrange with the state department of higher education, another appropriate agency, or another college or university for the filing of student records. Notification regarding the location of records and their accessibility should be sent to all students, including where possible, a copy of the student’s record. For additional information, see the Commission’s Considerations When Closing an Accredited or Candidate Institution Policy.

All candidate and accredited institutions are listed on this website in the Directory of Institutions section. The Directory is also available in print form upon request. If an institution is listed as accredited, it means that it is currently accredited and that its programs, both on-campus and off-campus, are included in its accreditation and that it is currently, to the best of the Commission’s judgment, complying with the accreditation requirements. The Commission does not accredit individual programs within an institution.

NWCCU does not support degree mills. Accreditation is designed to ensure that educational institutions provide a legitimate and quality education to their students. An excellent history and description of degree mills and the efforts to combat fake degrees and scams may be found here: Degree Mills: Old Problem, New Threat.

The Commission does not compare one institution to another. It does not rate or rank institutions and has no information bearing on ratings. It cannot recommend attendance at one institution rather than another.

The Commission does not maintain a list of programs offered by accredited institutions.

The Commission does not predict future actions which may be taken by the Commission on an institution or whether an institution will retain its accredited status in the future.

The Commission does not adjudicate individual grievances, but does accept complaints about substantive matters that are related to the quality of the institution or its academic programs. All such complaints are judged against the Commission’s standards.

Complaints must be submitted and signed electronically via this link. However, the Commission investigates these complaints only when the complainant has exhausted all of the institution’s appeal procedures. For more information, see the Commission’s Complaints Regarding Member or Candidate Institutions Policy.

Persons who are aggrieved as a direct result of acts or omissions by the Commission related to its accreditation functions may file a complaint with the Commission. The complaint must describe circumstances showing that the complainant has been aggrieved as a result of the Commission’s acts or omissions related to its accreditation functions. Concern that a Commission action was not in accord with the complainant’s expectations is not in and of itself cause for review of the complaint. See the Commission’s Complaints Against NWCCU Policy for further information.