State Approval and Accreditation: What is the Difference?

We often get calls asking if a school is accredited. While some of EAP approved schools are accredited, the function of the Educational Approval Program (EAP) is to approve schools to operate in Wisconsin, or in the instance of out-of-state schools, approve schools to serve Wisconsin residents.

The United States has no federal ministry of education or other centralized authority exercising single national control over postsecondary education institutions. The states assume varying degrees of control over education, but, in general, institutions of higher education are permitted to operate with considerable independence and autonomy. As a consequence, American educational institutions can vary widely in the character and quality of their programs.

In Wisconsin, EAP is the agency charged with overseeing and approving all postsecondary institutions serving veterans, for-profit postsecondary schools, out-of-state nonprofit colleges and instate nonprofit training institutions incorporated after January 1, 1992. The impetus for these actions is consumer protection and the assurance that students get quality programs in schools that are held to firm programmatic and operational standards.

Generally, training which leads to employment or ongoing education is approved. Such training is usually offered in a series of subjects with a unified purpose, as opposed to individual or random classes.

Schools seeking approval from EAP undergo a rigorous approval process. In addition to evaluating school approval applications, staff evaluates program and teaching location applications, advertising, enrollment and school catalog documents, refund policies and financial statements. Approval is granted after a school has submitted all required information and forms and the school is in compliance with state law.

Every year a school must renew its approval by sending in a renewal application. Schools must submit financial statements with the renewal application. Staff reviews the school's financial situation, student outcome data and surety bond amounts during the renewal cycle.

Staff visits approved schools annually. While staff must monitor schools for compliance with state law, the primary function of the site visit is to assist the institution in strengthening its capacity to improve its internal processes, feedback loops and evaluation systems.

EAP also performs its consumer protection function by handling student complaints. We investigate the complainant's issues and concerns and work with the school and the complainant to resolve any troublesome situations.

Apart from the legal obligation, an approval by the EAP gives schools credibility. Schools are encouraged to use EAP approval as a benchmark of quality when promoting their schools and programs to the public. A list of approved schools is made available to public agencies, job seekers, school counselors and others interested in education and training.

Accreditation is the granting of public recognition to a school, university or course of study that meets certain established standards and qualifications. It provides a professional judgment regarding the quality of the schools or programs, while also encouraging continual improvement. The practice of accreditation arose in the United States as a means of conducting nongovernmental, peer evaluation of educational institutions and programs. Private educational associations of regional or national scope have adopted criteria reflecting the qualities of a sound educational program and have developed procedures for evaluating institutions or programs to determine whether or not they are operating at basic levels of quality.

There are two basic types of educational accreditation, one identified as "institutional" and one referred to as "specialized" or "programmatic."

Institutional accreditation normally applies to an entire institution, while specialized or programmatic accreditation normally applies to programs, departments, or schools that are parts of an institution.

A significant purpose of accreditation is to enable students to transfer from one accredited institution to another. However, accreditation does not provide automatic acceptance by an institution of credit earned at another institution, nor does it give assurance of acceptance of graduates by employers.

Financial aid, from government and private sources, is usually awarded only to students who attend recognized or accredited institutions.

In 1984, the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (now the Council for Higher Education Accreditation --CHEA) recognized 11 accrediting bodies that include most traditional colleges and universities. In addition, there are a number of national institutional and specialized accrediting bodies recognized by the Department of Education. A complete list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies is available on the Internet.

Accrediting agencies and state agencies like EAP, work together to provide oversight of the institutions. EAP provides information concerning a school's education services, business ethics and general reputation to accreditors when a school makes an initial application. EAP staff often participates in initial on-site visits by the accreditation teams as well as renewal accreditation visits.

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