Institutions may be affiliated with the Commission by gaining accredited status or candidate status. The Commission determines whether an educational institution is to be considered for accreditation through its Eligibility Process.
All steps to status with the Higher Learning Commission must be completed within the prescribed timeframe. If at any point the timeframe is not met, the institution must restart the process from the beginning. The list below provides an overview of the steps in the process.
Fees apply to steps in the process to achieve accreditation.
An Overview of the Eligibility Process and Evaluations for Candidacy and Initial Accreditation
This information specifies the requirements and processes for non-affiliated institutions considering seeking initial accreditation with the Commission. The list below outlines the two stages of the process, pre-application to determine eligibility and application for status, and the steps within each stage. The institution should anticipate a minimum of five years and often up to nine years from the first step through the final decision on initial accreditation.
I. Pre-application to Determine Eligibility
- Letter of Inquiry with Preliminary Evidence
- Preliminary Evidence Review
- Pre-application Interview
- Post-interview Commission Letter
- Letter of Intent to Complete Eligibility Filing
- Eligibility Filing: Institutional Submission
- Eligibility Filing: Panel Review
- Letter on Eligibility
II. Application for Status
- Letter of Intent to Pursue Candidacy
- Preparation and Comprehensive Evaluation Visit for Candidacy
- Award and Duration of Candidacy
- Biennial Evaluation during Candidacy
- Evaluation for Initial Accreditation
An institution seeking accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission must complete all of the steps in the process within the timeframe prescribed, must adhere to the Commission guidelines related to each step, and must receive a positive decision by the Commission before moving to the next step. If at any point in the process the institution misses a required deadline, withdraws, or fails to achieve the next step, the institution must start the process from the beginning. When an institution restarts the process, it must wait one year before submitting a new Letter of Inquiry with Preliminary Evidence. An institution denied initial accreditation must wait two years before reapplying. All fees apply in subsequent pursuit of status.
Given the duration of the process, the institution must refrain from publicly indicating that it is seeking status with the Commission. The institution does not hold any status with the Commission until it is granted candidacy. No public statement about seeking status should be made until the institution seeks third-party comment a few months prior to the comprehensive evaluation visit for candidacy.
I. Pre-Application to Determine Eligibility
a. Letter of Inquiry with Preliminary Evidence
The institution submits a letter to the President of the Commission requesting a Pre-application Interview. The letter appends the required documentation that provides Preliminary Evidence that the institution may meet the Eligibility Requirements. The required fee must accompany this letter.
b. Preliminary Evidence Review
On receipt of the Letter of Inquiry, Preliminary Evidence, and fee, the Commission screens the materials to ensure they are complete. If the materials are not complete, the Commission will request that the institution submit the missing materials within 30 days. If the institution cannot provide the missing materials in this timeframe, the Commission returns the institution’s letter and Preliminary Evidence and refunds the fee. If the materials are complete, Commission staff reviews the Preliminary Evidence in depth.
If the review indicates that the evidence is sufficient, the Commission staff sends a notification letter to the institution requesting suggested dates for the pre-application interview. Suggested dates and the interview fee are due within 30 days of the notification letter from the Commission. The pre-application interview must take place at least 60 days and no more than four months from the date of the Commission’s notification letter.
If the evidence is not sufficient, the Commission will provide a letter to the institution identifying the issues that preclude the scheduling of a pre-application interview. The institution may submit updated evidence within 30 days and request a second Preliminary Evidence Review without having to pay an additional fee.
c. Pre-application Interview
During the two-hour interview in the Commission office, the Commission queries the institution on its preliminary evidence and proposed plan and timeline for pursuing status. The institution has the opportunity to ask questions about the process and its requirements.
d. Post-interview Commission letter
The Commission staff sends a post-interview letter indicating the timing for the next steps in the process, should the institution choose to continue with it. In that letter, the Commission identifies those Eligibility Requirements that have raised concerns at this stage of the process and any evidence that must be submitted prior to or with the letter of intent if the institution is to continue with the process. The Commission staff may also recommend that the institution is not ready to proceed further with seeking status with the Commission.
e. Letter of Intent to Submit the Eligibility Filing
If the institution chooses to continue to seek accreditation, it submits to the Commission a letter of intent to complete the Eligibility Filing. The institution may submit this letter up to two years after receipt of the post-interview letter from the Commission. The required fee and any required additional evidence must accompany this letter.
f. Eligibility Filing: Institutional Submission
Within one year of submitting the letter of intent, the institution submits its completed Eligibility Filing. In the Eligibility Filing, the institution must provide evidence that it meets all of the Eligibility Requirements.
The institution includes with its Eligibility Filing a written statement signed by the CEO and the Chair of the Board certifying that all the information is truthful and complete and that the institution will begin to abide by the Obligations of Affiliation as soon as it receives permission to schedule an on-site evaluation. The required fee must accompany the Eligibility Filing.
g. Eligibility Filing: Panel Review
Upon receipt of the Eligibility Filing, the Commission staff checks to ensure that the documentation is complete and ready for panel review. If the Eligibility Filing is not ready for panel review, Commission staff may provide the institution an opportunity to submit additional items necessary to complete the Filing. The institution must submit the additional items within 30 days of Commission notification. The Commission also may return the Eligibility Filing to the institution with a letter informing the institution of the issues that preclude review.
The panel review process takes 3 to 5 months. The purpose of the panel review is to determine the whether the institution has the capacity and readiness to pursue status with the Commission, specifically to host an evaluation visit for candidacy. The panel review determines whether the institution has assembled the necessary documentation to indicate it appears to have met all the Eligibility Requirements.
The review panel may decide that the institution does not appear to have met all the Eligibility Requirements and that the institution is not prepared to host an evaluation visit for candidacy at present. The panel will provide the reasons for its decision.
h. Letter on Eligibility
The Commission sends the institution a letter informing it of the outcome of the review. If the panel’s determination is positive, the Commission requests a letter of intent to pursue candidacy.
An affirmative Eligibility Filing review does not predispose any future reviewers to a determination as to whether the institution meets the Eligibility Requirements. Each evaluation team will conduct a fresh review of the evidence and make an independent judgment. Similarly, the evidence presented for the Eligibility Filing is only a subset—essential but not complete—of the institutional evidence required for an evaluation team to determine whether the institution merits candidacy.
Reminder: The acceptance of the Eligibility Filing does not grant or confer any status with the Commission. The institution does not hold any status with the Commission until the institution is formally granted candidacy by action of the Commission’s Board of Trustees.
B. Application for Status
Every non-affiliated institution seeking status with the Commission must apply for and serve a period of candidacy. The institution’s submission of its self-evaluation report for candidacy is considered its formal application for candidacy.
a. Letter of Intent to Pursue Candidacy
If the institution chooses to continue to seek status, it submits to the Commission a letter of intent to pursue candidacy. The institution may submit this letter up to 90 days after the receipt of the Commission letter indicating that the Eligibility Filing was accepted. The Commission acknowledges receipt of the letter and advises the institution to begin preparing the documentation needed for the comprehensive evaluation for candidacy. The documentation must be received in time for the team visit to take place within two years of the date of letter of intent. The required fee must accompany the letter of intent.
b. Preparation and Comprehensive Evaluation Visit for Candidacy
Candidacy is achieved through a process of self-study, on-site review by a Commission evaluation team, and a hearing by the Institutional Actions Council, with the final decision rendered by the Board of Trustees. Self-study is a multi-year process of institutional self-evaluation and improvement that results in a self-study report due eight weeks prior to the on-site review. The self-study report provides evidence that the institution meets all of the Eligibility Requirements, Assumed Practices, and Federal Compliance Requirements. In addition, the report provides evidence toward fulfillment of each of the Criteria for Accreditation and demonstrates the institution’s capacity to meet the Criteria fully within the four-year candidacy period. With the self-study report, the institution submits a letter indicating that it is committed to upholding the Commission’s Obligations of Affiliation.
Three months prior to the on-site visit, the institution must complete the Third-Party Comment process as part of fulfillment of the Federal Compliance Requirements.
During the on-site visit, Commission reviewers determine whether the institution meets all of the Eligibility Requirements, Assumed Practices within the Criteria, and Federal Compliance Requirements and whether it has the capacity to meet the Criteria fully within the four-year candidacy period. The recommendation of the evaluation team enters the decision process.
It is important that during the time period from the Eligibility Review to the Commission’s action on the Comprehensive Evaluation Visit for Candidacy that the institution does not undertake any change from the institutional description it submitted in the Eligibility Filing, such as change in mission, ownership or governance structure, new programs, delivery methods, contractual relationships, and additional locations. Significant change will result in cancellation of any scheduled visit and require re-submission of the Eligibility Filing and another review by a new panel.
The evaluation team determines whether the institution meets all the Eligibility Requirements and all the Assumed Practices within the Criteria and whether it has the capacity to meet the Criteria fully within the four-year candidacy period. The recommendation of the evaluation team enters the decision process. The current visit fees apply.
c. Award and Duration of Candidacy
The Institutional Actions Council conducts a hearing to consider the report and recommendation of the evaluation team. The Institutional Actions Council prepares a report indicating its agreement with the findings and recommendation of the team or providing different findings or recommendation. The report is reviewed by the Commission Board of Trustees, which renders the final decision to grant or deny initial candidacy.
The term of candidacy is four years from the date of Commission action. In exceptional circumstances, the Board may offer a fifth year of candidacy to an institution that demonstrates cause for an extension.
d. Biennial Evaluation during Candidacy
An institution hosts a required Biennial Evaluation visit two years after candidacy is granted to determine whether the institution is making reasonable progress toward meeting accreditation requirements by the end of the candidacy period.
An institution that has completed two years of candidacy may file an application for early initial accreditation and host an on-site initial accreditation visit to evaluate the institution for this purpose. The institution will be limited to one application for early initial accreditation during the term of candidacy. If the institution applies for early initial accreditation the Board may grant it or may require the institution to complete the full term of candidacy.
e. Evaluation for Initial Accreditation
At the end of the four-year candidacy period, an institution will be evaluated for initial accreditation. Initial accreditation is achieved through a process of self-study, on-site review by a Commission evaluation team, and a hearing by the Institutional Actions Council, with the final decision rendered by the Board of Trustees, as in the process for candidacy. To be granted initial accreditation, the institution must satisfy fully all the Eligibility Requirements, all Assumed Practices within the Criteria, and all the Criteria for Accreditation. If, as a result of the initial accreditation visit, the Board acts to extend the institution’s candidacy for a fifth year, the institution will repeat the visit for initial accreditation during that fifth candidacy year.