In American postsecondary education, accreditation performs 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 of the accrediting body. Since the accreditation is reviewed periodically, institutions are encouraged toward continued self-study and improvement.
Institutional accreditation is granted by the regional accrediting commissions or the associations of schools and colleges that together cover institutions chartered and/or licensed in the United States and its possessions. These commissions or associations accredit total operating units only, not parts of them.
Specialized accreditation of professional schools and programs is granted by a number of national organizations, each representing a professional area such as architecture, law, medicine, or social work. Though each of these organizations has its distinctive definitions of eligibility, criteria for accreditation, and operating procedures, most of them have undertaken accreditation as one means of protecting the public against professional incompetence.
While the procedures of the regional accrediting bodies differ somewhat in detail to allow for regional variations, their rules of eligibility, basic policies, and levels of expectation are similar. Given these variations in detail, accreditation at the postsecondary level is intended to fulfill the following purposes: