What is institutional accreditation for higher education?

Institutional accreditation is a quality assurance process conducted by a third party to hold an educational institution to the regionally expected standards of quality. There are seven federally recognized regional accrediting bodies, which oversee sustained rigorous cycles of quality inspection in institutions of higher education through self-reports as well as internal and external evaluations. If the accrediting body’s standards are met by an institution, the institution is granted accredited status. Accreditation is comprehensive and meant to foster ongoing improvement within an institution.

Who accredits Colorado State University?

CSU is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). HLC is an institutional accreditor recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States.

Why is institutional accreditation important?

CSU’s accredited status assures current and future students that the university provides a first-rate education that is regularly evaluated and meets or exceeds federally recognized and peer-approved standards of quality. Accreditation is also an assurance of the value of a CSU degree to other colleges and universities, licensing boards, and employers — many licensed professions require degrees from accredited institutions. In addition, accredited status is required for the university to disburse Title IV federal financial aid to students, and employer-paid tuition reimbursement programs often require the employee to be enrolled in an accredited institution.

Accreditation is more than an assurance or requirement, though. CSU’s accreditation reaffirmation process keeps internal evaluation and institutional-level improvement at the forefront of conversation. Each reaccreditation cycle is an opportunity for comprehensive peer review and allows the CSU community to discuss our strengths and challenges, progress on campus initiatives, how to further our university mission, and the areas of greatest importance to our community members. Accreditation fosters self-awareness at all levels of our institution and pushes us to recognize that every shortcoming we uncover is simply an opportunity for growth and greatness.

What are the criteria CSU must meet to remain accredited?

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) consults five Criteria for Accreditation in determining whether an institution will be granted accreditation or reaffirmation of accreditation. The Criteria for Accreditation, as stated on the HLC website, are as follows:

  1. Mission  – “The institution’s mission is clear and articulated publicly; it guides the institution’s operations.” 
  2. Integrity: Ethical and Responsible Conduct – “The institution acts with integrity; its conduct is ethical and responsible.” 
  3. Teaching and Learning: Quality, Resources, and Support – “The institution provides quality education, wherever and however its offerings are delivered.” 
  4. Teaching and Learning: Evaluation and Improvement – “The institution demonstrates responsibility for the quality of its educational programs, learning environments, and support services, and it evaluates their effectiveness for student learning through processes designed to promote continuous improvement.” 
  5. Institutional Effectiveness, Resources, and Planning – “The institution’s resources, structures, and processes are sufficient to fulfill its mission, improve the quality of its educational offerings, and respond to future challenges and opportunities.” 

An institution seeking accreditation or reaccreditation must also conform to Assumed Practices shared by U.S. institutions of higher education, meet Eligibility and Federal Compliance requirements, and meet expectations of participation as detailed in HLC’s Obligations of Membership. For more information visit HLC Requirements and Criteria for Accreditation.

How is the accreditation review conducted, and at what point in the process is CSU?

  • CSU participates in the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) Open Pathway — one of two options for maintaining accreditation with HLC.
  • The Open Pathway is a 10-year cycle as follows:
    CSU prepares our Assurance Filing (Assurance Argument and Evidence File) detailing our operations in preparation for the Year 4 Assurance Review.
  • Year 4: HLC conducts an Assurance Review that examines the Assurance Argument and Evidence File to determine whether CSU meets HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation and other requirements.
  • Years 5-7: CSU prepares and submits a Quality Initiative Proposal explaining a major improvement effort the institution will undertake between years 5 and 9 of the accreditation cycle. HLC reviews the proposal.

  • Years 7-9: CSU submits a Quality Initiative Report detailing the university’s work on our major improvement effort to fulfill the quality improvement requirements of HLC’s Open Pathway. HLC reviews the report. 

  • Year 10: CSU submits documents for HLC to conduct a Comprehensive Evaluation for Reaffirmation. The comprehensive evaluation includes but is not limited to another Assurance Review, a Federal Compliance Review, a Student Opinion Survey, and an On-site Peer Review campus visit. HLC then reaffirms the university’s accreditation or determines improvement action must be taken.

What is specialized accreditation?

Similarly to institutional accreditation, specialized accreditation is an internal and external review process to ensure the quality of educational offerings. However, specialized accreditation processes examine programs, departments, or schools within a university and are conducted by professional organizations in the relevant discipline.