Accreditation Resources and Related Policy

Accreditation Glossary of Terms

List of terms and definitions from the Higher Learning Commission

accreditation agency

A nongovernmental body established to administer accrediting procedures.

accreditation, institutional

Accreditation that evaluates an entire educational institution and accredits it as a whole.

accreditation, specialized (also called program accreditation)

Accreditation of units, schools or programs within a larger educational institution or for the sole program or area of concentration of an independent, specialized institution.

additional location (Based on federal definition)

A physical facility that is geographically separate from the main campus of an institution and within the same ownership structure of the institution, where instruction takes place and it is possible for students to do one or more of the following:

  • Complete 50% or more of the courses in educational programs leading to a degree, certificate or other recognized educational credential.
  • Complete 50% or more of a degree completion program (even if the degree completion program provides less than 50% of the courses leading to the degree).

An additional location may qualify as a branch campus under circumstances that meet the definition of a branch campus.

There is no threshold number of students necessary for a facility to qualify as an additional location.

There is no minimum distance from the campus necessary for a facility to qualify as an additional location.

An additional location typically does not have a full range of administrative and student services staffed by the facility’s personnel. Such services may be provided from the main campus or another campus.

A facility may provide access to instruction requiring students to be present at a physical location that receives interactive TV, video or online teaching. It is an additional location when 50% or more of a distance delivery program is available through one or more of these modalities at that facility. Note: This requirement does not apply for locations in which there is a general computer lab that students might use for distance delivery courses, except for additional locations that are correctional facilities.

A correctional facility where instruction takes place according to any of the 50% thresholds identified above is an additional location even if such instruction takes place primarily through distance education or correspondence courses at that location.

An additional location may have the status of open or closed.

An additional location that is open may have the status of active or inactive. An additional location has active status when students are enrolled at the location. Its status is inactive when students are not enrolled at the location. The status of an additional location can change between active and inactive without approval from HLC. However, a location may only be classified as inactive with no student enrollment at the location for a maximum of two consecutive years. At that point, HLC requires the institution to close the location.

Assumed Practices

A set of practices shared by institutions of higher education that is unlikely to vary by institutional mission or context. Institutions must meet the Assumed Practices to obtain accreditation with HLC.

Assurance Argument

A narrative in which the institution explains how it meets HLC’s Criteria for Accreditation, which is supported by linked documents in the Evidence File.

Assurance Filing

Created and submitted by the institution, the filing includes the Assurance Argument with embedded links to documents in the Evidence File.

Assurance Review

The peer review evaluation of the Assurance Filing.

campus/branch campus (Based on federal definition)

A physical facility that is geographically separate from and independent of the main campus of the institution and within the same ownership structure of the institution. HLC considers a location of an institution to be independent of the main campus if it has all four of the following attributes:

  • It is permanent in nature.
  • It offers courses in educational programs leading to a degree, certificate or other recognized educational credential.
  • It has its own faculty and administrative or supervisory organization.
  • It has its own budgetary and hiring authority.

comprehensive evaluation

The process used to determine whether an institution meets or continues to meet the Criteria for Accreditation. The comprehensive evaluation includes an Assurance Review, an on-site visit, a student survey and a multi-campus visit, if applicable. Comprehensive evaluations for candidacy, initial accreditation and Reaffirmation of Accreditation also include a Federal Compliance Review.

contractual arrangement

An arrangement in which the institution outsources some portion of its educational programs—that is, degrees or certificates offered for academic credit (including instruction, oversight of the curriculum, assurance of the consistency in the level and quality of instruction and in expectations of student performance and/or the establishment of the academic qualifications for instructional personnel)—to:

  1. An unaccredited institution.
  2. An institution that is not accredited by an accreditor recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
  3. A corporation or other entity.

Core Components

Subcategories of each Criterion for Accreditation, that are reviewed in order to determine whether an institution meets each Criterion.

distance education (Based on federal definition)

Education that uses one or more of the technologies listed below to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor or instructors and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor or instructors, either synchronously or asynchronously.

The technologies that may be used to offer distance education include:

  1. The internet;
  2. One-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite or wireless communications devices;
  3. Audio conference; or
  4. Other media used in a course in conjunction with any of the technologies listed in items 1–3 above.

For purposes of this definition, an instructor is an individual responsible for delivering course content and who meets the qualifications for instruction established by HLC.

distance education course

A course in which at least 75% of the instruction and interaction occurs using one or more of the technologies listed in the definition of distance education, with the faculty and students physically separated from each other.

distance education program

A certificate or degree program in which 50% or more of the courses may be taken as distance education courses.

dual credit courses

Courses taught to high school students for which the students receive both high school credit and college credit.

educational program (Same as federal definition)

  1. A legally authorized postsecondary program of organized instruction or study that:
    • Leads to an academic, professional, or vocational degree, or certificate, or other recognized educational credential, or is a comprehensive transition and postsecondary program, as described in 34 CFR part 668, subpart O; and
    • May, in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as a measure of student learning, utilize direct assessment of student learning, or recognize the direct assessment of student learning by others, if such assessment is consistent with the accreditation of the institution or program utilizing the results of the assessment and with the provisions of 34 CFR § 668.10.
  2. HLC does not consider that an institution provides an educational program if the institution does not provide instruction itself (including a course of independent study) but merely gives credit for one or more of the following: Instruction provided by other institutions or schools; examinations or direct assessments provided by agencies or organizations; or other accomplishments such as “life experience.”

“Educational program” is synonymous with HLC’s use of the terms “academic offering(s)” and “academic program(s).”

Evidence File

Documents that an institution provides in its Assurance Filing to support the claims and arguments made in the institution’s Assurance Argument.

Federal Compliance Requirements

Requirements that HLC is obliged to enforce as part of its recognition by the U.S. Department of Education.

Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

An institutional accreditor recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. HLC accredits degree-granting institutions of higher education in the United States.

HLC staff liaison

An HLC Vice President of Accreditation Relations who serves as a member institution’s primary contact, advises the institution about HLC’s policies and procedures and helps to coordinate the peer review and decision-making processes.

Institutional Actions Council (IAC)

HLC’s decision-making body made up of experienced peer reviewers and representatives of the public.

institutional response

An institution’s written response to a peer review team or Institutional Actions Council recommendation.

Institutional Status and Requirements (ISR) Report

A resource available to an institution’s CEO or Accreditation Liaison Officer that includes the complete institutional history with HLC, information on the status of current and upcoming accreditation events, and information on the institution’s designated pathway and related events.

Institutional Update

An online report completed annually by member institutions regarding institutional health.

interim report

A report filed by an institution to provide updates to HLC on progress in addressing a serious issue at the institution, the resolution of which is relevant to the institution’s future compliance with, or improvement regarding, the Criteria for Accreditation.

maintain accreditation

Actively participate, as an institution, in HLC’s accreditation processes to ensure the institution meets the Criteria for Accreditation and other HLC requirements.

Mark of Accreditation Status

An image that reflects an institution’s current accreditation status and links to the institution’s Statement of Accreditation Status on HLC’s website. Each member institution is required to display the Mark on its website.

multi-campus visit

A visit to a selection of an institution’s branch campuses that occurs as part of comprehensive evaluations that are conducted when an institution applies for candidacy and initial accreditation and during Years 4 and 10 of the Standard Pathway and Year 10 of the Open Pathway.

multi-location visit

A visit to a selection of additional locations of an institution with three or more active additional locations, occurring once every five years.

non-financial indicators

Data provided by an institution through the Institutional Update that help HLC determine if the institution may be at risk of not meeting components of the Criteria for Accreditation.


A sanction signifying an institution is pursuing a course of action that could result in its being unable to meet one or more of the Criteria for Accreditation.

Notification Program for Additional Locations

A program for qualified institutions to open new additional locations as defined in the institution’s Statement of Accreditation Status after notifying HLC prior to initiating any new additional locations and receiving an acknowledgment that HLC has added the new additional location to its database.

Obligations of Membership

The responsibilities that HLC member institutions are required to fulfill in order to maintain their membership.

official action

An official HLC decision made by the HLC staff, the Institutional Actions Council or HLC’s Board of Trustees.

Open Pathway

A pathway for maintaining accreditation with HLC that features a 10-year reaffirmation cycle where quality assurance and quality improvement are addressed separately.

Peer Corps

The group of faculty, administrators and public members from within HLC’s membership who evaluate whether institutions are meeting the Criteria for Accreditation and participate in HLC decision-making bodies.

peer review team

A group of peer reviewers conducting an evaluation on behalf of HLC.

peer reviewer

A member of HLC’s Peer Corps.

Pell-eligible prison education program (also referred to as PEP)

A prison education program that meets all the requirements articulated in 34 CFR 668.236 for students enrolled in the program to be eligible to receive Pell Grants.

personally identifiable information (PII)

Information about an individual that allows the individual to be specifically identified. PII includes, but is not limited to the following: name, address, telephone number, birthday, email, Social Security number, bank information, etc.

program content changes

Changes to a program’s curriculum (measured by clock or credit hours), learning objectives, competencies or required clinical experiences. This would include changes in the general education courses required for program completion and not merely the courses within the discipline, program or major.

Quality Initiative

A major quality improvement effort conducted by institutions between Years 5 and 9 of the Open Pathway that addresses a current concern or aspiration specific to the institution.

Quality Initiative Proposal

A proposal submitted by an institution on the Open Pathway explaining the major improvement effort the institution will undertake as its Quality Initiative.

Quality Initiative Report

A report submitted by an institution on the Open Pathway upon completing its Quality Initiative that reflects on accomplishments, documents achievements and strategies, and defines new priorities and challenges.

Reaffirmation of Accreditation

An action by an HLC decision-making body confirming, based on evaluation, that an institution may retain its HLC accreditation. An institution that has lost legal authority to operate as an institution of higher education cannot be reaffirmed.

recognized accreditor

An accreditor recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

regular and substantive interaction (Based on federal definition)

Institutions are expected to ensure regular and substantive interaction between students and instructors in their distance education and competency-based education offerings. An institution ensures regular interaction between a student and an instructor or instructors by, prior to the student's completion of a course or competency:

  1. Providing the opportunity for substantive interactions with the student on a predictable and scheduled basis commensurate with the length of time and the amount of content in the course or competency; and
  2. Monitoring the student’s academic engagement and success and ensuring that an instructor is responsible for promptly and proactively engaging in substantive interaction with the student when needed on the basis of such monitoring, or upon request by the student.

Substantive interaction is engaging students in teaching, learning and assessment, consistent with the content under discussion, and also includes at least two of the following:

  1. Providing direct instruction;
  2. Assessing or providing feedback on a student's coursework;
  3. Providing information or responding to questions about the content of a course or competency;
  4. Facilitating a group discussion regarding the content of a course or competency; or
  5. Other instructional activities approved by HLC or the program's accrediting agency.


Conditions placed on an institution’s development of new activities or programs.

Student Opinion Survey

An online survey conducted by HLC as part of comprehensive evaluations. The opinions and data gathered assist peer reviewers in developing questions for their meetings during the on-site visit.

Criteria for Accreditation

The following definitions explain how these terms are used within the Criteria for Accreditation. HLC's intent is not to prescribe how institutions must use a particular word or phrase locally, but rather to offer a means to ensure a consistent reading of the meaning and expectations of the Criteria. This glossary is not part of the Criteria policy and will be updated as needed to respond to questions and feedback from institutions and peer reviewers.

academic freedom (2.D.)

The ability to engage differences of opinion, evaluate evidence and form one’s own grounded judgments about the relative value of competing perspectives. This definition implies not just freedom from constraint but also freedom for faculty, staff and students to work within a scholarly community to develop intellectual and personal qualities.

academic offerings

Synonymous with HLC’s use of the term “educational program.”

appropriate to higher education (3.A.) 

Curricular and cocurricular programming of the quality and rigor for the degree level that prepares students to think critically and function successfully. It is distinctly different from K-12 education.

autonomous (2.C.)

The institution’s governing board acts independently of any other entity in determining the course of direction and policies for the institution.

auxiliary (2.A.)

Activities and services related to, but not intrinsic to, educational functions: dining services, student housing, faculty or staff housing, intercollegiate athletics, student stores, a Public Radio station, etc. In many institutions, “auxiliary” simultaneously denotes a segregated budget and dedicated revenues.

capacity (1.A., 5.C.)

An institution’s ability to effectively deliver its educational offerings. Determining capacity refers to an institution’s demonstrable ability to establish and maintain academic quality. Indicators of sufficient capacity may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Financial resources to support academic offerings at start-up and in the future.
  • Evidence of planning that allocates necessary resources and shows ongoing development.
  • Alignment of academic offerings with the institution’s mission and evidence of the institution’s long-term commitment.
  • Evidence of new or revised policies and procedures that demonstrate commitment and sustainability.
  • Qualified faculty and staff to serve students.
  • Learning environments (whether classrooms, laboratories, studios or online infrastructure) with technological resources and equipment.
  • Print and electronic media and support for the access and use of the technological resources across modalities.

civic engagement (1.C.)

Community service or any number of other efforts (by individuals or groups) intended to address issues of public or community concern.

cocurricular (3.C., 4.B.)

Learning activities, programs and experiences that reinforce the institution’s mission and values and complement the formal curriculum. Examples: Study abroad, student-faculty research experiences, service learning, professional clubs or organizations, athletics, honor societies, career services, etc.

consortial arrangement (3.A., 3.C.)

An arrangement in which an HLC-accredited institution develops an agreement with an institution or group of institutions, all of which are accredited by accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education—that is, the consortial party(ies)—through which the consortial party(ies) agrees to provide some portion of one or more educational programs (i.e., degrees or certificates offered for academic credit) offered by the HLC-accredited institution.

control (2.B.)

The entity that is responsible for the fiscal and operational oversight of an institution and its programs. Control also includes the structure and organizational arrangements of an institution. Examples include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The state board or agency that oversees a public university.
  • The board of trustees that oversees a private, nonprofit college.
  • The parent corporation of a private, for-profit college.
  • The public board authorized by Congress to oversee an institution under federal control.
  • Religious bodies and tribal councils.

dual credit (3.C., 4.A.)

Courses taught to high school students for which the students receive both high school credit and college credit. These courses or programs are offered under a variety of names; the Core Components that refer to “dual credit” apply to all of them as they involve the accredited institution’s responsibility for the quality of its offerings.

good practice (4.B., 4.C.)

Practice that is based in the use of processes, methods and measures that have been determined to be successful by empirical research, professional organizations and/or institutional peers.

informed citizenship (1.C.)

Having sufficient and reliable information about issues of public concern and having the knowledge and skills to make reasonable judgments and decisions about them.

operational staff (5.B.)

Personnel who support the academic enterprise, such as those who may work in the areas of finance, human resources, facilities, dining/catering, information technology, planning, security, student services, academic support, etc.

public (1.A.)

In phrases such as “makes available to the public” or “states publicly,” this refers to people in general, including current and potential students. In phrases such as “the public good,” the Criteria refer to public, as opposed to private, good. 

public information (1.A.)

Information on websites or other materials that are available freely to the public, without individuals having to specifically request access to them.

student outcomes (5.C.) 

Education-specific results to measure against the objectives or standards for the educational offerings. Examples could be results from licensure or standardized exams, course and program persistence, graduation rates and workforce data.

superordinate entity (1.B.)

An entity situated hierarchically above the institution, which includes but is not limited to state boards, private owners, corporate parents, Tribal councils or religious denominations.

undue influence (2.C.)

Overreach, suspicious transactions and relationships that are exclusive (without oversight) that could yield influence over the institution’s governing board.

wherever and however delivered (Criterion 3, 5.B.)

All modes of delivery of academic offerings and all locations, modalities and venues, including but not limited to the main campus, additional locations, distance delivery, dual credit and contractual or consortial arrangements.