Accreditation is a peer review process designed to evaluate the quality of academic programmes and institutions based on a set of professional standards or expectations. The purpose of accreditation in postsecondary education is to provide a signal to policymakers, peer institutions, and the public regarding the quality, competency, and credibility of a postsecondary education institution or programme. It serves as a form of self-regulation of institutions or programmes and aims to create pressure and support for improvement. It is used to qualify institutions for eligibility for federal and state funds and sometimes as an assurance of quality for state or professional programme approval (Eaton 2012b).
While accreditation is technically voluntary, institutional accreditation can impact institutional vitality and viability because only accredited institutions receive federal student financial aid dollars. In many professions, programmes must be accredited in order to provide students with credentials that will enable them to be employed in their chosen profession. Because of the tension between oversight and the important academic values of peer review, institutional mission, autonomy, and academic freedom, the overlap between accreditation and regulation is sometimes controversial (Eaton 2012a; Leaf and Burris 2002).
The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) accredits educational leadership preparation programmes. While accreditation is voluntary, a growing number of institutions that prepare educators participate in CAEP accreditation (https://www.ncate.org" xmlns:xlink="https://www.w3.org/1999/xlink">ncate.org). CAEP applies the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (or PSEL) and the National Educational Leadership Preparation (NELP) standards to guide accreditation.
Examining other professions outside of education– namely, medicine, psychology, engineering, and law – highlights broader trends in the accreditation of professional preparation programmes.
While each profession has its own accreditation trajectory, the themes of outputs over inputs, competencies, and continuous improvement are evident across. New challenges have arisen around how to define, measure, value, and teach these competencies.
Interrelated pressures and tensions that have shaped accreditation across the professions include the complicated relationship between accreditation and quality, innovation, and impact; the potential cost and burden of accreditation; market and globalization pressures; and diversity and equity concerns. Despite the limited research on the connections between accreditation and quality, students, employers, and licensing bodies sometimes use accreditation to inform decisions. Yet, when programme accreditation and external stakeholders become too intertwined, it can hinder both competition and innovation. Some evidence also suggests that when accreditation is overly prescriptive, it can serve as an obstacle to innovation and competition (see Portinga 1995–1996). Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that accreditation can come at a substantial burden to faculty and institutions – although it can also foster faculty collaboration (Prus and Strein 2011). Market pressures, such as employment opportunities for recent graduates, have also shaped accreditation (see Hamilton and Schaefer 2016). Finally, diversity and equity concerns, such as disproportionality in the gender and race of students and faculty, have likewise influenced the debate around and structure of reforms (see Bell et al. 2017).