Do Private Schools Need to be Accredited?

Accreditation
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Question: Is Accreditation Necessary?

Just because a school claims membership in a state, regional or national association doesn't mean that it is actually accredited. Many schools claim to be, but in reality, they aren't always. Accreditation is a status granted by organizations which have been authorized by state and/or national authorities to do so. Accreditation is a highly prized designation which has to be earned by the private schools and maintained over the years.

Why is it important? By making sure that the private school you are applying to is accredited, you are guaranteeing yourself that a school has met certain minimum standards during a thorough review by a body of its peers. This also means that the school provides transcripts that are acceptable for college admission processes.

Gaining & Maintaining the Approval: The Self Study Evaluation & School Visit

Approval is not granted just because a school applies for accreditation and pays a fee. There is a rigorous and comprehensive process by which hundreds of private schools have proven that they are worthy of accreditation. Schools must engage, first, in a self study procedure, which often takes approximately one year. The entire school community is often engaged in assessing different standards, including but not limited to, admission, development, communications, academics, athletics, student life, and, if a boarding school, residential life.

The goal is to assess the school's strengths and areas in which it needs to improve.

This massive study, which is often hundreds of pages long, with myriad documents attached for reference, is then passed along to a review committee. The committee is made up of individuals from peer schools, ranging from Heads of School, CFOs/Business Managers, and Directors to Department Chairs, Teachers and Coaches.

The committee will review the self study, evaluate against a set of pre-determined metrics that a private school should align to, and begin to formulate questions.

The committee will then schedule a multi-day visit to the school, during which they will conduct numerous meetings, observe school life, and communicate with individuals regarding the process. At the end of the visit, before the team departs, the chair of the committee will typically address the faculty and administration with their immediate findings. The committee will also form a report that more clearly illustrates its finding, including recommendations that the school must address prior to their check-in visit, usually within a few years of the initial visit, as well as longer term goals that must be addressed before re-accreditation in 7-10 years.

Schools Must Maintain Accreditation

Schools are required to take this process seriously, and must be realistic in their assessment of themselves. If a self study comes back for review that is purely glowing and has no room for improvement, the reviewing committee will likely dig deeper to learn more and uncover areas for improvement. Accreditation is not permanent. A school has to demonstrate during the regular review process that it has developed and grown, not just maintained the status quo.

A private school's accreditation can be revoked if they are found to not be providing the adequate educational and/or residential experience for its students, or if they fail to meet the recommendations provided by the review committee during the visit. 

While each regional accrediting associations may have slightly different standards, families can feel comfortable knowing that their school has been properly reviewed if they are accredited. The oldest of the six regional accrediting associations, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, or NEASC, was founded in 1885. It now claims approximately 2,000 schools and colleges in New England as accredited members. In addition, it has approximately 100 schools located overseas, which have met its strict criteria. The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools lists similar standards for its member institutions.

These are serious, exhaustive evaluations of schools, their programs and their facilities.

The Obligations of Affiliation, for instance, of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges specifically states that a member school must undergo review not later than five years after original accreditation was granted, and not later than ten years after each satisfactory review. As Selby Holmberg said in Education Week, "As an observer and evaluator of a number of independent school accrediting programs, I have learned that they are interested above all in standards of educational excellence."