The increase in distance education programs and institutions, and questions about extending financial aid to them, has given rise to questions of whether accreditation is an adequate means to ensure the quality and integrity of this new medium of delivery. This entry offers a frame for understanding and responding to the emerging forces of change in distance education and accreditation. The history and multiple forms of accreditation will be briefly described. The unfolding policy issues in the federal arena and the different approaches used by the regional accrediting commissions to review and accredit distance education will be discussed along with special issues facing the accreditation of distance education and how accreditation has responded.
HISTORY AND TYPES OF ACCREDITATION REVIEWING DISTANCE EDUCATION
Accreditation in the United States has been taking place for more than 100 years. It is conducted by nongovernmental organizations emphasizing peer review processes supported by formal standards and processes and is organized into three major types of accrediting agencies: regional, national, and specialized/professional. Each is involved with distance education, though in different ways.
Regional accreditation is the most commonly held accreditation and is institutional in form. Created first in the North Central region to ensure quality in high schools, it quickly moved to colleges who wanted to verify the quality of courses and degrees earned at other institutions. A process of peer review was established, whereby evaluators would visit an institution and review its resources, policies, and structures. On the basis of such reviews, credits and degrees earned at one institution became accepted by others. The success of this process led, in the early twentieth century, to the creation of several regional accrediting associations for both schools and colleges. There are now six regional associations1 and eight regional commissions,2 with the Western Association of Schools and Colleges formed the most recently in 1964. Regional commissions accredit the most commonly known academic institutions, nearly 3,000 in number, and require institutions to be degree-granting to be eligible.
National accrediting agencies are also institutional in scope but accredit similar institutional types across the United States, such as technical and vocational institutions, as well as many that offer degrees in business, computer science, technology, and other fields. Several of these agencies accredit institutions that award certificates, and others are moving into the accreditation of distance education programs, including one that focuses exclusively on distance education, the Distance Education Training Council.
Specialized/programmatic accreditation is limited to specialized fields of study, such as medicine, law, business, or education. Specialized accrediting agencies focus on programs, and...