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Regional accreditation is educational accreditation of schools, colleges, and universities in the United States by one of the six regional accreditors. Each regional accreditor encompasses the vast majority of public, and not-for-profit and for-profit private educational institutions in its region. They accredit and include among their members, elementary schools, junior high schools, middle schools, high schools, public and private universities, colleges, and institutions of higher education that are academic in nature.
Each regional agency has full accrediting authority for both grade schools (primary and secondary) and colleges (postsecondary), with the exception of the northwestern region, for which responsibility is divided between two separate accreditation agencies (Northwest Accreditation Commission for primary and secondary schools and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities for colleges and universities).
The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation list a total of eight regional accreditation entities as recognized for higher education accreditation. Except for the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, these are subdivisions within the regional agencies:
The regional accrediting agencies were established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to a perceived need for better articulation[clarification needed] between secondary schools and higher education institutions, particularly to help colleges and universities evaluate prospective students. The New England Association was formed in 1885 by a group of schoolmasters of secondary schools. The Middle States Association formed in 1887. The faculty of Vanderbilt University led the establishment of the Southern Association in 1895, and the North Central Association was organized the same year at a meeting of 36 administrators of midwestern schools, colleges, and universities. The Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools (predecessor of the two organizations that now serve that region) was formed in 1917 and the Western Association was founded in 1923. Initially the main focus of the organizations was on accreditation of secondary schools and establishment of uniform college entrance requirements.
Regionally accredited higher education institutions are predominantly academically oriented, non-profit institutions. Nationally accredited schools are predominantly for-profit and offer vocational, career or technical programs.
Every college has the right to set standards and refuse to accept transfer credits. However, if a student has gone to a school that is only nationally accredited and not regionally accredited, it may be particularly difficult to transfer credits (or even credit for a degree earned) if he or she then applies to a regionally accredited college. A 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that, in making decisions on credit transfer, about 84 percent of U.S. higher education institutions considered whether the sending institution is accredited, and many had policies stating that they would accept credits only from regionally accredited institutions. About 63 percent of institutions told the GAO that they would accept credit from any regionally accredited institution, but only 14 percent similarly accepted credits from nationally accredited schools. Regional institutions are reluctant to accept credits from nationally accredited institutions due, in part, to national accreditors' less stringent standards for criteria such as faculty qualifications and library resources. Students who are planning to transfer credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited school are advised to ensure that the regionally accredited school will accept the credits before they enroll.
In general, the names of U.S. post-secondary institutions and their degree titles do not indicate whether the institution is accredited or the type of accreditation it holds. Rules on this topic vary from state to state. Regulations of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission require that post-secondary institutions in the state of Tennessee must be regionally accredited to use the word "university" in their names, and that a school lacking regional accreditation may not use the word "college" in its name without adding a qualifier such as "career", "vocational", "business", "technical", "art", "Bible", or "Christian". Tennessee rules also specify that only regionally accredited schools can issue "liberal arts" degrees or degree titles such as Associate of Arts or Science and Bachelor of Arts or Science.