The US higher education system is known for its ability to attract foreign talent from around the world. To many, the multitude of American higher education institutions (HEIs) offers collaborative and innovative research programs in a wide array of disciplines. In addition, foreign students report the US as a top academic destination because of the multi-cultural, social dimension found in many American cities. Nevertheless, thorough knowledge and appropriate recognition of one's academic credentials is a complicated, yet necessary pre-requisite for admission into US colleges and universities for all prospective international students with previous certificates and/or degrees awarded outside the US (i.e., at the secondary or tertiary level).
Unlike most of the world, the US higher education system is largely decentralized, whereby the federal agency, the US Department of Education, plays a diminutive role in educational governance. The federal government does not issue institutional or program accreditation, but it, alongside the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), is responsible for the recognition of the various accreditation agencies that do issue institutional and program accreditation. Institutional accreditation pertains to the assessment of satisfactory qualitative academic standards at the institutional (e.g., university) level. Program accreditation, on the other hand, refers to the assessment of similar qualitative standards within a degree program of study.
In large part, six regional agencies issue institutional accreditation (i.e., for an entire college, institute, or university) and program accreditation (i.e., for degree-granting programs of study, such as a BS in Computer Science or a MA in Sociology) and they do so according to an institution's geographic locations.
For example, institutions and programs located in Connecticut and Massachusetts would likely seek accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc. (NEASC), whereas accreditation of HEIs and programs in New York and Pennsylvania would likely be issued by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA).
A number of national accreditation agencies solely focus on the recognition of for-profit and/or non-degree vocational and occupational institutions and programs. However, it should be noted that institutional and program accreditation is a voluntary process in the US; accreditation of institutions and their respective degree programs is neither governed nor required by law and, therefore, unaccredited programs and HEIs can lawfully operate in the US.
Nonetheless, unaccredited HEIs in the US do suffer severe consequences; lack of accreditation legally disqualifies an institution's students from accessing federally funded loans and grants, which are extremely helpful with financing the cost of tuition.
In contrast to the superficially 'lax' American accreditation system, recognition of credentials for admission – particularly of foreign credentials – is nothing short of a highly regulated process since the heterogeneity of national education systems further complicates the concept of academic equivalency.