As I sit with clients and they speak to me about their “accreditation” needs, I listen intently, because the next part of the conversation tells me a great deal. The vast majority of the time, my clients have “certification” needs, not “accreditation” needs. I now then know I must do some capacity-building with them, sometimes subtly so, so we are all on the same page with our “credentialing” terminology…

There is a profound difference between “accreditation” and “certification” and those who work in the professions or professional training and development, especially, should be aware of this. I have seen more than a few times that organizations are offering “accreditation” to members or individuals who take their courses.

For example, a professional association I belong to, as a resource, allows other organizations to post advertisements for training on their web site that may be of interest to our membership. I saw a posting a short time ago for a fairly renowned organization offering training courses on a very hot topic in our field and the blurb said that successful trainees would be “accredited” as experts in the area. STOP right there! There are so many things wrong with that claim.

First of all, recognition as an expert after a weekend training session is misleading, to say the least – that’s a discussion for another day, though. BUT, granting “accreditation” to an individual simply does not happen. For those of us with experience and expertise in developing and evaluating programs for the professions, when we read that individuals will be “accredited” we cringe. Here’s why…

I work in the “credentialing” domain. Credentialing is the umbrella term that includes concepts such as “accreditation,” “licensure,” “registration,” and professional “certification.” Credentialing establishes criteria for fairness, quality, competence and even safety for professional services provided. Credentialing is a process by which an entity, with authorization and qualifications to do so, grants formal recognition to, or tracks the recognition status of individuals, organizations, institutions, programs, processes, products or services that meet predetermined and standardized criteria.

So under the umbrella of credentialing, let’s deal with the difference between “accreditation” and “certification.” On the one hand, accreditation is the time-limited approval granted by a non-governmental agency of an educational program or institution offering services according to defined standards. Certification on the other hand, is a process, often voluntary, by which individuals who have demonstrated the level of knowledge and skill required in their specific profession, occupation or role are identified to the public and other stakeholders. A certification is granted by a non-governmental agency for time-limited recognition of the individual’s demonstrated knowledge/skill/competency according to predetermined, standardized criteria. Professional certification allows recognition of a profession to the public as experts through rigorous legal and psychometric requirements. Licensure is similar to certification but it is a mandatory process overseen by a governmental agency.

From these industry-accepted definitions, it is clear that individuals cannot be accredited; they can be certified, or in some cases licensed. Only entities like hospitals, universities, and organizations offering professional learning programs can be accredited.

I have seen the mistake of accreditation applied to individuals from very reputable organizations. For these organizations, it’s just a matter of education; they simply do not know the difference. This is where credentialing experts must be consulted. If you have read this, you know where to find a credentialing expert.

For further reading, see:

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) Standards for the Accreditation of Certification Programs (NCCA Standards) – NCCA, 2007

Certification: The ICE Handbook (2nd Edition) – The Institute for Credentialing Excellence, 2009

Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing – The American Educational Researchers Association, The American Psychological Association & National Council for Measurement in Education, 2013