What You Need to Know About Accreditation

By Adam Shajnfeld

Getting a degree in psychology is quite an investment, involving years of study and potentially costing tens of thousands of dollars. If you're going to make this investment, you should be sure that the investment can pay off. You should start by ensuring that the program is accredited.

What is accreditation?

Accreditation means that a program has met quality standards imposed by an accrediting agency. This agency generally circulates standards for schools and periodically assesses programs to make sure that they are meeting these standards. Schools that pass this assessment receive a public certificate of accreditation, basically a "stamp of approval."

Why is it important?

In itself, accreditation provides some assurance of a program's quality. Just as important, though, is that in most cases, those who would like to be licensed to practice psychology are required to have attended an accredited program. Many jobs have the same requirement.

Who accredits graduate programs in psychology?

It is necessary to distinguish between institutional and program accreditation. Institutional accreditation is conferred upon a school in its entirety-not a single program-by one of six regional accreditation bodies: Middle States Commission on Higher Education; New England Association of Schools and Colleges; North Central Association of Schools and Colleges; Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; Western Association of Schools and Colleges; and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. These organizations are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

A number of organizations accredit individual psychology graduate programs. The most reputable and relied upon is the American Psychological Association ("APA"), operating through its Commission on Accreditation. Another reputable organization is the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards ("ASPPB").

Neither the APA nor the ASPPB accredit non-doctoral programs. Other accrediting agencies do. These are the: Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs ("CACREP"), Council on Rehabilitation Education ("CORE"), Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education ("COAMFTE") , Masters in Psychology Accreditation Council ("MPAC"), and National Association of School Psychologists ("NASP").

How does a program obtain accreditation?

Both the APA and the ASPPB accredit doctoral programs in clinical, counseling and school psychology-programs generally leading to eligibility to practice psychology. Programs in other areas of psychology which generally do not lead to the practice of psychology - such as social or evolutionary psychology - are not and need not be accredited.

The APA assesses programs and confers accreditation based on a consideration of eight domains: (1) Eligibility: does the program require at least three years of academic study and an internship? Is the program's goal to train students for the practice of professional psychology? Is the program located within an institutionally-accredited entity? (2) Program philosophy, objectives and curriculum plan: does the program offer instruction in the scientific, methodological and theoretical foundations of psychology, and in diagnosis and assessment? (3) Program resources: are there an identifiable and sufficient core faculty, student body, administration and facilities? (4) Cultural and individual diversity; (5) Student-faculty relations; (6) Program self-assessment and quality enhancement: does the program demonstrate a self-critical commitment such that its goals are likely to continue to be met, and problems likely to be addressed as they arise? (7) Public disclosure: does the program provide written public materials that fairly represent material facts; and (8) Relationship with the accrediting body: is the program committed to working with the APA and maintaining its accreditation?

The APA accreditation process requires that a school submit documentation regarding these domains and undergo an on-site assessment. It takes approximately 18 months from the time the documentation is submitted until accreditation may be granted.

The ASPPB accredits programs that either (1) have been accredited by the APA or the Canadian Psychological Association, or (2) meet criteria substantially similar to that used by the APA. The ASPPB accreditation process relies heavily on a review of documentation submitted by the school, as well as communications with administrators and faculty members, though an on-site review is not necessary.

The MPAC begins by soliciting a detailed self-study report, authored by the program seeking accreditation, which leads to a panel review. If the panel is satisfied with the report, an on-site review is arranged, and the reviewers compile a report. The council eventually votes on whether to accredit the program based on the program's organizational structure, the curriculum's competence, the school's budget and facilities, and the quality of the faculty, staff, and research and clinical instruction.

Are there different levels of accreditation?

Yes. For instance, the APA maintains three levels of accreditation. Accredited (fully compliant); Accredited, on probation (programs not fully compliant and subject to review within two years); and Accredited, inactive (fully compliant programs that have not admitted students for two successive years).

How can I find out if a program is accredited?

First, review the program's literature. Second, check with the U.S. Department of Education at http://www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/, which contains a searchable database of post-secondary educational entities that have received institutional accreditation. Assuming that the institution housing the program is accredited, you can determine if the particular graduate program is accredited by checking the following organizations' websites:

Third, always check with the licensing board in the state in which you wish to practice.

A word on non-doctoral degrees and accreditation:

As stated above, the APA and ASPPB do not accredit non-doctoral programs. In picking such terminal programs (associate, bachelor, master, certificate), be sure that the school has institutional accreditation. If the school has an APA or ASPPB accredited doctoral program for which the non-doctoral degree you seek is a component, this is an added assurance of quality, especially if the programs share faculty and resources. Otherwise, accreditation by one of the other agencies is also a sign of a quality program.