Accreditation, as it is practiced in relation to colleges and universities in the United States, is voluntary on the part of an institution. It is a recognition that an institution or program has been evaluated and that it meets a set of standards of quality that are determined by the members of the association or agency granting the accreditation. The members participate in a self-regulatory process that is unique to the United States. An institution that has been granted accreditation becomes a member of the association and participates in any future development of accrediting standards and procedures. The Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is an institutional accrediting body and accredits the entire institution. Although it evaluates programs as part of the accreditation process, it does not accredit specific programs.
The chief aims of accrediting associations are to help assure the consumers of higher education–parents, students, and employers--that an institution or program is meeting minimum standards and to stimulate those institutions and programs to improve beyond the minimum standards.
Accrediting associations in the United States have traditionally been private organizations, many of which accredit both public and private institutions of higher education. Accrediting associations are not connected with local or state government or with the federal government, although government agencies do rely on the accreditation of an institution in making student loan monies and other funds available to the institution. Accreditation can aid in the transfer of collegiate credit, but there are various kinds of institutions and accreditation, and transfer of credit is not automatic.