Accreditation of Universities in the USA

Copyright 2002-03, 2011 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.

In this essay I use colleges and universities interchangeably, to mean the same thing.

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.
  1. Middle States (Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania)

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

  3. 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)

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

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

  6. 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.   The U.S. Department of Education has a database of nationally recognized accrediting agencies by subject area.

3. Accrediting Organizations in Specific Subjects

There are also accrediting organizations for academic degrees in some specific subject areas. For example:
Note that some of these standards are set by a nonprofit professional society that is concerned with the subject matter (e.g., ACS, ABA, AMS). 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.

4. Law

The accrediting organizations are all nonprofit corporations. Courts generally defer to any decision made by an accrediting organization, provided that:
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:
My essay on state action at private colleges has a section that cites cases nationwide that accrediting associations are not engaged in state action. I note that some courts have required that accrediting associations provide "common-law due process" to colleges or departments.

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:

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 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 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, full of buzzwords about quality and integrity of degrees. 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:
I would suggest that accrediting organizations evaluate students who have graduated instead of focusing solely on evaluation of classes in a department or college.

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
first posted 15 June 2002, version 7 April 2011, links revised 22 Feb 2015

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