The process for an institution to become accredited varies a bit depending on to which accreditor the school has applied for recognition. Generally, however, the process is along the following lines.
There are also various fees payable to the accrediting body by the applicant school at each stage of this process.
The accreditation process does not vary significantly among the six regional accreditors. The same principles of self study and peer review also apply both to the regional and national accrediting bodies.
One exception is that the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) has a slightly different approach to applicants. DETC does not have a period of candidacy. All schools that have applied are simply applicants until and unless accreditation is awarded. They do, however, have a readiness evaluation that applicant schools either pass or fail, and those that pass are in a position somewhat analogous to candidacy at other accrediting bodies.
The amount of time it takes to go through the entire accreditation process can vary considerably. It is very rare for a school to complete the process in less than one year. In exceptional circumstances, such as institutions that have been in operation for a long time, are well funded, and have well regarded faculty members and a strong research profile, schools have been known to skip over the candidacy period altogether. However, this is extremely rare, and usually the accreditation process can take several years to complete.
There is no rule that states that an institution that is denied accreditation by one organization cannot seek it from another. More often, institutions that believe they are in danger of losing accreditation from one organization have sought it from another, although usually this is a sign of financial instability on the part of the school and since all accreditors place considerable weight on the financial health of the schools they accredit, this strategy is usually unsuccessful.
Initial accreditation and renewal are different but related processes. Like initial accreditation, renewal requires a site visit from reviewers appointed by the accrediting body, and those reviewers will come from other schools that are accredited by that same accreditor. The process differs, however, in that schools are expected to have simply maintained and improved standards, such as through Quality Enhancement Plans and other initiatives.
A school can be places on probation for many reasons. It may have demonstrated that it is not adhering to the standards set by the accrediting agency. It may have broken its own rules when it comes to its own institutional process. Or, most often, it may have run into financial trouble.
Typically, when an accredited institution has run into trouble, it is first given a warning, which includes the specific corrections it must make. If it cannot or does not fix what has gone wrong, the next step is to be places on probation, again with a list of what must be corrected. Probation is a serious sanction, but it is important to note that institutions that are on probation from their accreditors are still accredited. If the problems continue, then eventually the accrediting body will issue a “show cause” order, demanding that the institution demonstrate immediately why it should not be disaccredited. Absent a compelling response from the school, its accreditation status will then end, and be terminated, and the institution will become unaccredited.
Once an institution has become accredited, it is rare for it to lose this status. Community colleges and public universities in particular almost never lose their accreditation status, but even private institutions only lose this status very infrequently. Normally an institution will do whatever is required to maintain their accreditation. The most common reason for an institution to become disaccredited is that it cannot maintain sufficient financial health to continue operating, and accrediting bodies will take this very seriously because it affects the ability for the school to deliver on the promises that it makes to new and continuing students.
As mentioned, candidacy is a status offered by some accreditors to applicants who have demonstrated that they are capable of meeting the standards required for accreditation. It does not mean that the institution is accredited, and is not a “pre-accreditation” status. It simply means that the applicant has shown sufficient promise to be worthy to continue on in the accreditation process. Schools that hold candidacy status should therefore still be considered unaccredited.