Higher education accreditation in the United States is a peer review process coordinated by accreditation commissions and member institutions. It was first undertaken in the late 19th century by cooperating educational institutions, on a regional basis.
The federal government began to play a limited role in higher education accreditation in 1952 with reauthorization of the G.I. Bill for Korean War veterans. The original GI Bill legislation had stimulated establishment of new colleges and universities to accommodate the influx of new students; but some of these new institutions were of dubious quality. The 1952 legislation designated the existing peer review process as the basis for measuring institutional quality; GI Bill eligibility was limited to students enrolled at accredited institutions included on a list of federally recognized accredited institutions published by the U.S. Commissioner of Education.
The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) (a non-governmental organization) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education and provide guidelines as well as resources and relevant data regarding these accreditors. Neither the U.S. Department of Education nor CHEA accredit individual institutions. With the creation of the U.S. Department of Education and under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, the U.S. Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the secretary has determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training provided by the institutions of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit.
Professional schools, which are often graduate schools, have separate organizations for accreditation.
Prior to 2020, there were regional and national accrediting agencies, both of which were accountable to the Department of Education. Regional bodies historically accredited institutions in a particular region of the country. National bodies were established to accredit institutions across the country, and sometimes beyond it. Within American higher education, regional bodies were considered more prestigious. In February 2020 the Department of Education eliminated the distinction between regional and national accrediting agencies, creating one unified set of institutional accreditors. The department claimed that the change was intended to encourage cooperation between accredited schools to improve student experiences, uphold quality standards, and reduce the cost of higher education by encouraging transparent transfer of credits and mutual recognition of degrees between schools with common standards. It also claimed that the change was intended to allow students to able to access the best school for their needs no matter what region they reside in.
Historically, educational accreditation activities in the United States were overseen by six regional accrediting agencies established in the late 19th and early 20th century to foster articulation between secondary schools and higher education institutions, particularly evaluation of prospective students by colleges and universities. These six agencies were membership organizations of educational institutions within their geographic regions. Initially, the main focus of the organizations was to accredit secondary schools and to establish uniform college entrance requirements. Accreditation of colleges and universities followed later with each of the accrediting agencies splitting into separate organizations with one or more of those organizations focused exclusively on accrediting colleges and universities. The higher education institutions holding regional accreditation were primarily non-profit institutions with significant exceptions, as the largest US for-profit universities (University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University, Strayer/Capella University) were regionally accredited.
Regionally accredited schools were usually academically oriented and most were non-profit. Nationally accredited schools, a large number of which are for-profit, typically offered specific vocational, career, or technical programs. Regionally accredited institutions employed large numbers of full-time faculty, and the faculty set the academic policies. Regionally-accredited schools were required to have adequate library facilities. Except for some specific subject areas such as nursing, nationally-accredited schools did not hire many full-time faculty, usually hiring faculty by the course, without benefits and with no influence on the school's academic policies, which were determined by non-academic administrators, and ultimately investors. Their library facilities, if they existed at all, were far inferior to those of regionally-accredited schools. While there were some legitimate and well-intentioned nationally accredited schools, by and large they existed not to educate, but to make money for their investors. They lived on federal student aid and very high tuitions, often leaving graduating students with credentials of little value and large student loans, often without job prospects by which to pay them off. Critics considered national accreditation to be disreputable. Schools accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, a national accreditor, were occasionally sued for leading prospective students to believe, incorrectly, that they would have no problem transferring their credits to a regionally accredited school.
The U.S. Department of Education recognizes the following organizations as institutional accreditors:
Specialized and professional accreditors are recognized as reputable by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Best practices are shared and developed through affiliation with the Association of Professional and Specialized Accreditors. The more visible specialized and professional accreditors include:
Several organizations exist that accredit institutions and which are not recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or CHEA. These include:
Although many schools related to religious organizations hold regional accreditation or secular national accreditation, there are four different agencies that specialize in accreditation of religious schools:
These groups specialize in accrediting theological and religious schools including seminaries and graduate schools of theology, as well as broader-scope universities that teach from a religious viewpoint and may require students and/or faculty to subscribe to a statement of faith. Additionally, as of 2009, 20 U.S. states and Puerto Rico had some form of exemption provision under which religious institutions can grant religious degrees without accreditation or government oversight.
Since 2001, the use of the top-level internet domain, .edu has been restricted to accredited institutions, but non-qualifying institutions can still use .edu domain names obtained before the current rules came into force.
Various commenters have written about the role and effectiveness of the American accreditation system. It has drawn particular interest since the rise of e-learning classes and institutions. A frequent point of discussion and criticism is that the traditional system is limited to measuring "input" factors, such as adequate facilities and properly credentialed faculty, rather than the quality of a school's educational output.
In his 1996 book Crisis in the Academy, Christopher J. Lucas criticized the accreditation system as too expensive, onerously complicated, incestuous in its organization, and not properly tied to quality. Similarly, a 2002 report by George C. Leef and Roxana D. Burris of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) argued that the system does not ensure or protect educational quality, while still imposing significant costs. In a 2006 "issue paper", Robert C. Dickeson wrote that a lack of transparency, low and lax standards, and outdated regionalization were among the problems with regional accreditation. Others, such as Edward M. Elmendorf of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, reject these claims, arguing that they are "picking around the edges" of a proven and necessary system for upholding standards. Thomas C. Reeves notes that schools unable or unwilling to meet the standards of traditional accrediting bodies have begun to start their own agencies that may have much less rigorous standards. 
At various times the U.S. government has investigated changes to the accreditation system. In 2002 the House of Representatives Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness criticized the system. Accreditation was a major topic of the Spellings Commission, which released its report on September 26, 2006. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation recognizes that there are criticisms, but has opposed these calls for reform, with President Judith S. Eaton arguing that the system is successful and needs to remain flexible to accommodate differences between schools and disciplines. In 2013, President Barack Obama proposed changes in the accreditation system to hold "colleges accountable for cost, value, and quality". He requested Congress change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are considered in determining which institutions are accredited and allow students access to federal financial aid; his criticism was directed at for-profit institutions.
An article published by "University World News" on 2 February 2018 stated that the higher education accreditation community, which confers the quality-assurance seal of approval that allows United States colleges and universities access to billions of dollars of federal student aid, must do a better job of explaining itself to the public if it wants to reverse waning public confidence in higher education. That was one of the tamer recommendations voiced at a conference for accreditors, who are feeling the brunt of growing scepticism about the value of a US college degree.
Regional accreditation is considered more prestigious than national accreditation.
Accreditation, along with federal and state regulation, can impede creative new approaches as well.
U.S. accreditation, then, is a robust, complex and unwieldy and sometimes controversial enterprise. These are the first things that we see when we 'take a look at ourselves, accreditation...'