University accreditation is a system for ensuring that students receive a quality education. Types of accreditation vary according to the legal system and academic community standards in which a university operates. Accreditation may be performed by government and private bodies, and in some places, both types of accreditors have a legitimate role to play in the process of university accreditation. Types of accreditation include both institutional and program-based programs.
During accreditation an outside organization evaluates a school in order to determine whether it meets acceptable education standards. In some places, such as the United States, accreditation is a purely voluntary process. Unaccredited schools can operate and issue degrees with no legal repercussions. As far as the academic community is concerned, unaccredited degrees have little if any worth as professional or educational credentials. For this reason, governments generally establish a process for accrediting schools or providing official recognition of private accrediting bodies. Accrediting agencies may accredit a wide range of universities and their programs or may focus on accrediting specialized programs.
In the United States, two main types of university accreditation are offered. The first is institutional accreditation in which an accrediting body reviews the operations of the school and determines whether it is providing quality education that meets the standards set by the wider academic or professional communities in which it offers education or training. There are several organizations recognized by the United States Department of Education that provide institutional accreditation, some which accredit all types of schools, while others focus on accrediting schools that offer instruction in a specific subject matter. Many schools hold multiple institutional accreditations, depending on their orientation. For example, a theological seminary might be accredited by a regional accrediting body, but may also hold institutional accreditation through a specialist accreditor that accredits only graduate theological programs.
The second type of university accreditation is programmatic accreditation. This is a very specific and narrow type of accreditation often offered by professional or trade organizations. The purpose of programmatic accreditation is to ensure that students are receiving an education that will prepare them for occupations within a particular subject matter, and many government licensing agencies rely on this type of accreditation to determine which educational programs meet their criteria for professional licensure. Institutionally accredited universities that offer education in specialized fields, such as mental health, law, and engineering, will often seek specialized accreditation for these programs so that their students will be eligible for licensure and career opportunities.