Chủ Nhật, 14 tháng 9, 2008

Accreditation of Universities in the USA

Accreditation of Universities in the USA
Copyright 2002-03 by Ronald B. Standler


Table of Contents
1. Introduction
2. Regional Accrediting Organizations
3. Accrediting Organizations in Specific Subjects
4. Law
5. Minimum Requirements
Bachelor's degree
Master's degree
Doctoral degree


1. Introduction
The purpose of this essay is to explain accreditation to students in the USA, as well as to foreigners who are baffled at the complexity of accreditation in the USA. A secondary purpose is to explain the requirements for academic degrees in the USA.

This essay is intended only to present general information about an interesting topic in law and is not legal advice for your specific problem. See my disclaimer.

To simplify matters, in this essay I refer to colleges and/or universities as just universities.


2. Regional Accrediting Organizations
There are six regional accrediting organizations for universities in the USA, each with a different territory. These regional accrediting organizations accredit all degrees, in all subject areas, in an entire university. (See below for organizations that accredit degrees in a single academic subject.) The alphabetical list of states in parentheses comprise the region for each organization.
Middle States (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania)

New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont)

North Central (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming)

Northwest (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington state)

Southern (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia)

Western (California and Hawaii)

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a private organization that coordinates the regional accrediting organizations, as well as the accrediting organizations in specific academic subjects.

The federal government in the USA plays a negligible roll in accreditation, mostly in The Office of Postsecondary Education of the U.S. Department of Education.


3. Accrediting Organizations in Specific Subjects
There are also accrediting organizations for academic degrees in some specific subject areas. For example:
The American Chemical Society, Committee on Professional Training (ACS)

Computer Science
The Accreditation Board for Engineering & Technology, Computing Accreditation Commission (ABET-CAC). The Computing Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB) participates in ABET. The CSAB includes representatives of the Association for Computing Machinery, the Computer Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, and the Association for Information Systems.

Engineering & Technology
The Accreditation Board for Engineering & Technology (ABET) has representatives from all of the major engineering professional societies in the USA, including the Association of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), and the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), amongst many others.

Degrees in engineering technology are often confused with degrees in engineering. The distinction between engineering and technology is:
Engineering students take more classes in mathematics and higher-level classes in physics and chemistry, than technology students. Technology students tend to have more "practical" classes, as in vocational education.
Consequently, graduates of engineering programs are better qualified to do research and development, such as design novel products. Graduates of technology programs (e.g., a bachelor of science in electrical engineering technology) are generally employed to build prototype products, supervise manufacturing production work, do routine laboratory work, and repair sophisticated electronic equipment.
Technology programs are not offered by most universities in the USA, so many students who choose to study engineering would be better suited for a technology program.

The American Bar Association (ABA) section on legal education and The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) both evaluate law schools.

The Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) is a joint project of
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and
the American Medical Association, Council on Medical Education (AMA-CME)

Meteorology / Atmospheric Science
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) has issued a policy statement that describes the minimum curriculum and faculty for a bachelor's degree in meteorology. The AMS also certifies individual people as competent in meteorology.

Note that some of these standards are set by a nonprofit professional society that is concerned with the subject matter (e.g., ACS, ABA, IEEE). Other standards are set by associations of medical schools or law schools.

There are many other examples of accreditation for a specific department, I list some of the above examples only because I am familiar with them from my background in science and engineering. Further, the examples in law and medicine are important because state governments require that a person who is licensed to practice law or medicine must have graduated from an accredited school, amongst other requirements.

The U.S. Department of Education has a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies by subject area, which includes many other accrediting organizations. In case that link does not work, try the U.S. Department of Education homepage for accreditation.


4. Law
The accrediting organizations are all nonprofit corporations. Courts generally defer to any decision made by an accrediting organization, provided that:
the organization followed its own rules.
the act was in good faith.
there exists a formal, internal procedure for protests of an impending act that adversely affects a party.

This legal principle was established in England in the case Dawkins v. Antrobus, 17 Ch. D. 615 (1881). There are several scholarly articles that explain the law in more detail:
Zechariah Chafee, "The Internal Affairs of Associations Not for Profit", 43 Harvard Law Review 993 (1930).

William A. Kaplin and J. Philip Hunter, Comment, "The Legal Status of the Educational Accrediting Agency: Problems in Judicial Supervision and Governmental Regulation," 52 Cornell Law Quarterly 104 (1966).


Minimum Requirements
Before one can understand the requirements for academic degrees, one first must understand some terms about academic credit for a class:
A semester is an academic term with a duration of 15 weeks. Typically in the USA, a university has two semesters per year: one begins in August and the other begins in January. (There is a third semester during the summer, but most students have jobs during the summer, instead of attending classes then.)

semester hour
A so-called "one-hour" lecture class has a duration of 50 minutes. A lecture class that meets for a total of 3×50 minutes each week for one semester is worth "3 semester hours" of credit. A lecture class that meets for a total of 5×50 minutes each week for one semester is worth "5 semester hours" of credit.

A quarter is an academic term with a duration of 10 weeks. A typical student attends classes for three quarters during the year. (There is a fourth quarter during the summer, but most students have jobs during the summer.) Some universities in the USA have quarters, instead of semesters.

quarter hour
A class that is worth 3 quarter hours of credit is equivalent to a class that is worth 2 semester hours of credit, because a quarter has fewer weeks of classes than a semester.

Bachelor's Degree
Minimum academic requirements for a bachelor's degree from an accredited university in the USA in the year 1970 include:
A total of at least 120 semester hours of credit must be earned in classes at accredited universities. It typically takes a student four years of full-time study (not including summers) to earn a bachelor's degree.

Each of these classes has written examinations, term papers or weekly homework, and other assignments that must be completed by every student. Students were required to attend every class meeting, unless they had a good reason for their absence.

There are numerous restrictions on which classes may be counted for a degree, for example:
specific classes in one's major subject may be required, according to the decision of the faculty in each department
specific classes in general education (e.g., writing, speech, mathematics, science) may be required
a selection of classes outside one's major subject is required, to give breadth to one's education: by exposing students to science, mathematics, history, philosophy, psychology, economics, music, etc.
at least 50 semester hours of credit must be earned in classes suitable for third- or fourth-year students majoring in those subjects
either take a two-semester foreign language class (e.g., total of 10 semester hours) or pass a competency exam in a foreign language.
These rules supposedly prevent students from graduating by either taking only easy classes, or taking classes in a narrow range of subjects.

At least the final year of study (i.e., at least 30 semester hours) must be conducted on the campus of university that issues the degree, a so-called "residency requirement". This requirement ensures that the university that issues a diploma will have some first-hand experience with the student, instead of relying on credit for courses taken at another university. Many colleges required at least the final four semesters (i.e., two years) of study be conducted on campus.

Master's Degree
Minimum academic requirements for a master's degree (e.g., M.Sc.) from an accredited university in the USA in the year 1970 include:
A total of at least 30 semester hours of credit beyond the bachelor's degree must be earned in classes at accredited universities. At least 24 semester hours was in classes, of which at least half must be at the graduate level.

Traditionally, a candidate for a master's degree was required to complete a master's thesis, which was an original scholarly work. The candidate was required to defend the thesis before a meeting of the candidate's advisory committee, which other professors were welcome to attend. The student was given 6 semester hours of credit for a successful thesis.

Beginning in the late 1960s, universities in the USA began to devalue the master's degree by allowing students to take an extra six semester hours of classes instead of doing a master's thesis.

A Master's degree typically required one year of full-time study or two years of study while also doing teaching or research on campus (i.e., a half-time teaching or research assistant).

Doctoral Degree
The requirements for a doctoral degree (e.g., Ph.D.) from an accredited university in the USA have a great deal of variation from one subject area to another, and from one university to another. The one common feature everywhere is that the doctoral degree is the highest academic degree offered by universities in the USA.

The minimum academic requirements for a doctoral degree in the year 1970 include:
A total of at least 50 semester hours of credit beyond the bachelor's degree must be earned in classes at accredited universities. Most of these classes will be in the student's major subject and most of these classes will be at the graduate level. Classes that were taken for a Master's degree can also be used to satisfy part of the requirements for a doctoral degree. (The student was given at least 12 semester hours of credit for a successful doctoral dissertation. Variation in the amount of credit given for a dissertation causes most of the variation in the total number of semester hours required for a doctoral degree.)

The most important part of a doctoral degree is the completion of a doctoral dissertation, which is a significant, original scholarly work that is suitable for publication in professional journal(s).

There is a sequence of three examinations:
A written examination, typically about six hours in length covering the undergraduate syllabus. A student typically is given two chances to pass this examination, a failure on the second time expels the student from the graduate program.
A written proposal of a dissertation topic and research methods, followed by a oral examination by the candidate's advisory committee, which other professors are also welcome to attend.
And, most significantly, the candidate is required to defend his/her dissertation before a meeting of the candidate's advisory committee, which other professors are also welcome to attend.

A doctoral degree typically required between four and six years of full-time study and research beyond a bachelor's degree. Most universities required the candidate for a doctoral degree to spend at least three years on campus, taking classes and doing research.

Every accredited university must have an adequate library, to support scholarly research by both students and faculty. Most major universities have a total of more than 5 × 105 volumes of scholarly books and periodicals in the several libraries on their campus.


The state and federal governments in the USA spend billions of dollars every year to support universities in the USA. Surprisingly, there are no government standards for the quality of education at universities in the USA. Instead, minimum standards for education in universities are set by private, nonprofit corporations, called accrediting organizations.

My impression is that accreditation in the USA is:
mostly a bureaucracy. Evaluations of a department involve preparing a thick stack of paper about each class (documenting the objectives, content, requirements, and example examinations of every class), as well as including the c.v. of each professor. Of course, what really matters is the knowledge of students who pass each class, but accrediting organizations seem to accept the polite assumptions that a professor would never:
teach only part of the written course syllabus, to make the class easier for the students.
give generous partial credit when grading examinations, so that students who are incompetent make a score higher than 70% and pass the class.
tell the students what will be on the examination, so the students can prepare to take the examination, a practice known as "teaching the test". Of course, nearly all of the students make high scores on such an examination, but the scores are meaningless as a measure of the students' competence.
avoid using online tools to detect plagiarization, despite evidence that at least 1/4 of term papers in universities in the USA contain plagiarized material.
privately reprimand students who plagiarize their term papers, instead of giving them a failing grade in the class and reporting them for investigation and disciplinary action.
full of buzzwords about quality and integrity of degrees.
weak (or silent) on substantial requirements that would make a bachelor's degree a significant intellectual achievement.

Despite the fact that accrediting standards in the USA are weaker than I would prefer, I have no doubt that degrees from an accredited university have more integrity than degrees from a nonaccredited university.


this document is at
version 21 April 2003

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