The nation's regional accrediting commissions announced on Wednesday that they had agreed to a common set of terms to describe the status of the institutions under their purview.
The accrediting bodies, which are private, nonprofit organizations, are responsible for determining if colleges are eligible to receive federal financial aid, and also seek to improve the academic quality of those colleges. But the organizations have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years from lawmakers and other officials, who charge that accreditation is an arcane process that provides too little useful information to the public.
Wednesday's announcement, by the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, is an effort to clarify what it means when an accreditor finds a college out of compliance with the accreditor’s standards, Elizabeth H. Sibolski, president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, said in a news release.
"As regional accreditation evolved over the years, unique descriptions were developed to identify varying levels of concern regarding the accreditation status of individual colleges and universities," Ms. Sibolski said in the written statement. "At a time when more institutions are operating on a national scale, these terms have, at times, resulted in confusion among students and the general public in cases when actions have been taken," she said.
The terms that the accreditors agreed on are as follows:
Warning: The accreditor has determined that an institution does not meet one or more standards of accreditation.
Probation: The accreditor has serious concerns about the level and/or scope of an institution's noncompliance with accrediting standards. By federal regulation, the accreditor must withdraw accreditation if the institution is out of compliance for two years, unless there is good cause to extend its status.
Show Cause: A college is asked to demonstrate why its accreditation should not be withdrawn. This could happen at the end of a probationary period, but probation is not a necessary precursor.
Withdrawal of Accreditation: An institution loses its accreditation and membership in the accrediting organization.
Denial of Accreditation: A college is denied its application for initial accreditation because is does not meet the accreditor’s standards.
Appeal: An institution can appeal a withdrawal of accreditation or denial of accreditation. During the process the college remains accredited or a candidate for accreditation.