Accreditation of an academic program reflects the initiative of faculty, administration, and even students at an institution. Accreditation provides multiple benefits for these constituency groups, as well as for consumers, by establishing a professional curriculum and by attending to specific aspects of quality assurance and gatekeeping. Though no panacea, accreditation offers one means by which an institution, an academic program, and its graduates can verify to both public consumers and professional peers that a contemporary and quality program of study has been embraced and promoted.
Accreditation of most graduate-level academic programs is advanced through one of two routes, these being (a) institutional accreditation or (b) specialty accreditation. The former is quite common for academic settings, because it fosters a measure of uniformity and standardization among otherwise disparate academic programs. Institutional accreditation has a rather lengthy history of implementation and is well known to citizens as well as educators. Institutional accreditation is frequently awarded by one of the six regional accrediting bodies recognized by the United States Department of Education (e.g., Southern Accreditation for Colleges and Schools, North Central Accreditation for Colleges and Schools).
By contrast, specialized accreditation has a somewhat less established history than institutional accreditation. Specialized accreditation involves review of a smaller unit than an institution by professional peers advancing a curriculum peculiar to that discipline. Examples of specialized accreditation are noted in the accreditation practices of the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and the American Psychological Association (APA). A significant aspect of specialized accreditation is its oversight by a voluntary rather than governmental body. Currently, such oversight is by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Recognition by and affiliation with CHEA is an endorsement of the specific nature of the educational process for a profession. Thus, CHEA recognition of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) represents both rigor and uniqueness for the specialized accreditation of counselor training programs.
History of Counselor Accreditation
The establishment of CACREP in 1981 was primarily related to efforts from the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES) and the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), both divisions of the American Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA), the forerunner of the current American Counseling Association (ACA). This initiative from ACES was logical, because its membership was largely representative of counselor educators and supervisors involved in the development of new counselor practitioners in public school, higher education, and mental health sectors of the field. The 1973 document that propelled the accreditation movement was titled “Standards for Entry Preparation of Counselor and Other Personnel Services Specialists.” This effort reflected a consensus of opinion concerning both classroom and applied academic experiences necessary for the minimally prepared graduate of a counselor education program.
In its initial 1981 standards, CACREP established the three practice environments of School Counseling, College Student Personnel Counseling, and Community and Other Settings. Beginning in 1988, CACREP embarked on a different route of accreditation with the adoption of standards for the accreditation of graduate programs in mental health counseling. Subsequently, various other specialty tracks of accreditation were instituted, including college counseling; gerontological counseling; career counseling; marriage, couple, and family counseling and therapy; and student affairs.
Since its inception, CACREP has functioned as an agency apart from ACA control. The CACREP board has traditionally been composed of members affiliated with various divisions of the ACA. A notable exception in this regard has been the accredited track in community counseling, for which no divisional status has ever been established by the ACA or its predecessors. This situation is historically remarkable, because the majority of non-school accredited programs have been in community counseling, but no ACA or professional affiliate group representing this track has ever been among the composition of the board. Additionally, some professional identity and turf related difficulties emerged in the 1980s for the CACREP track in marriage, couple, and family counseling and therapy when compared with the specialty accreditation for graduate study in marriage and family therapy advanced by the Commission on Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), a CHEA peer of CACREP. Still, amid a history of evolution and refinement, the CACREP, according to Schmidt, steadily developed as the primary agency for the recognition of counseling as a distinct and viable discipline.
Curricular Requirements for Entry and Doctoral Programs
One significant aspect of accreditation has always been the establishment of a minimum curricular experience for graduate study in professional counseling. The academic requirements for accreditation have historically been fashioned to reflect national standards for the field. Accreditation by CACREP is founded on adherence to curricular requirements at both entry and doctoral levels of graduate study. With few exceptions, the master’s degree reflects the minimal graduate degree level for accredited entry programs, though some programs feature the educational specialist as the entry-level degree. Such degrees are intended to prepare graduates for postgraduate supervision in their pursuit of independent licensure. Such preparation is typical for licensure in social work and in marriage and family therapy, unlike psychology, which traditionally relies on completion of the doctorate for independent licensure. Currently, the CACREP curricular requirements for entry-level programs include eight content areas, these being (a) professional orientation, (b) human growth and development, (c) social and cultural diversity, (d) career development, (e) helping relationships, (f) group work, (g) assessment, and (h) research and evaluation. Additional clinical requirements reflective of the national standards involve a practicum (minimum of 100 hours, 40 hours of which are to be in direct client service) and an internship (minimum of 600 hours, 240 of which are to be in direct client service). Both of these clinical experiences are to include regular weekly individual supervision as well as group supervision.
Accreditation of doctoral programs by CACREP reflects continuing but advanced preparation beyond the foundational curricular requirements in entry-level study. However, accredited doctoral programs feature unique elements of preparation such as (a) advanced supervised clinical practice (often in teaching roles), (b) formal training in supervision (c) quantitative and qualitative methodologies for conducting original research, (d) pedagogical practices related to counselor education, and (e) advanced course work in supplemental areas, often as doctoral minors.
The minimal curricular requirement for the various entry-level degree tracks ranges from 48 to 60 semester hours. The minimal curricular requirement for the doctorate is a total of 96 semester hours (including master’s study). A significant aspect of doctoral work is the equivalent of the accredited master’s degree as prerequisite to pursuit of the terminal degree. Just as with most other professions, a master’s degree in a related peer discipline (e.g., social work, psychology) is not typically considered to be the equivalent to the accredited master’s degree in counseling, meaning that in many cases, those wishing to pursue the doctoral degree in a CACREP-accredited program may have to complete additional course work before beginning their pursuit of the doctorate.
The Accreditation Process
Accreditation represents both a condition and a process of professional review. As with any form of review, accreditation by CACREP involves multiple layers of scrutiny, both internal and external. As an initial step, the faculty in a program conducts an internal review of their status relative to the requirements in the CACREP standards. In this process of internal auditing, a program often devotes years of review and revision to align its policies, practices, and procedures with the standards. The cumulative product in this initial step is the preparation and submission of a self-study for accreditation. The self-study is designed to provide summary evidence for the scrutiny of external review relative to the program’s compliance with CACREP standards. Once they have been submitted, self-studies are reviewed by multiple CACREP board members. If the self-review passes these initial evaluations successfully, the next phase of accreditation review begins: This is an on-site team review.
Drawing from their familiarity with both the specialty tracks for which the program is seeking accreditation and the CACREP standards, an on-site visiting team comprising volunteer professionals arranges for travel to the institution. The charge of the team is to verify the statements from the self-study and to address any questions identified by the board members who completed the review of the self-study. During a visit that is typically 3 days in length, the on-site team interviews both institutional and community stakeholders as well as program graduates, field supervisors, and others. The exit report from the team features summary findings concerning standards the team believes to be met or not met, which will be reported to the CACREP board. The institution receives a copy of the team report and has the opportunity to submit a rejoinder for clarification or dispute concerning the report.
Board decisions typically involve review of the self-study, the team report, and the institutional rejoinder as the basis for an accreditation decision. If the decision is unfavorable, a program may request an appeal at the next board meeting. If the decision is favorable, a program may receive either 2-year accreditation (with a required interim report that addresses progress in improvement on standards identified as deficient) or 8-year accreditation from CACREP. Maintaining accreditation requires an annual fee and an annual report concerning vital statistics and related information.
Accreditation and Counselor Credentials
The CACREP curricular requirements serve as the foundation for certification by at least two professional bodies. The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) is an independent organization that certifies counselors on the basis of their completed graduate study. Significant in this process is that the academic requirements for certification by NBCC mirror those of CACREP. Similarly, the National Credentialing Academy (NCA), established by the International Association for Marriage and Family Counselors, offers a national certification in family therapy based on a variety of academic options. Specifically, a graduate degree from the marriage, couple, and family counseling and therapy specialty track accredited by CACREP is one of these options available for national certification by the NCA.
As of May 2006, 48 state legislatures (and the District of Columbia) had established licensure for the practice of professional counseling. In all but a few of these states, the National Counselor Examination (NCE), developed by the NBCC, is a part of the formal examination process for licensure. Additionally, the majority of licensure states have adopted CACREP curricular content areas as the minimal academic requirements for licensure. In this respect, relocation to a new state and subsequent licensure as a professional counselor can be assisted when licensure bodies rely on a common curriculum of graduate study for their licensees.
An obvious benefit in completing an accredited entry-level program is a seamless transition into doctoral study. Additionally, doctoral graduates are prepared specifically to function as advanced practitioners, researchers, or educators in the field of counseling.
A View to the Horizon
As of May 2006, CACREP had accredited 202 institutions. Of these, one was Canadian (University of British Columbia) and one offered a totally online training program (University of Phoenix—Phoenix and Tucson campuses). Each of these 202 institutions had at least one accredited entry-level track and 49 had accredited doctoral programs. According to CACREP, the prominence and professional viability of accreditation of counselor training programs has been steady and impressive during its initial 25 years of existence.
In its draft documents for the 2008 standards, CACREP’s Standards Revision Committee has considered a variety of pending changes, including (a) merging community counseling and mental health counseling into a single entry-level track, (b) deleting the specialty track in gerontological counseling, (c) merging the college-oriented specializations, (d) requiring program faculty hired after 2008 to be from counselor education programs (a requirement similar to that of the APA for faculty composition in an accredited program), and (e) adopting a competency-based orientation for accredited programs. In this respect, revision efforts for CACREP standards reflect a continuation of the contemporary issues affecting the professional practice of counseling.
CACREP has also begun the revision process for organizational aspects other than accreditation standards. Specific changes discussed in the spring 2006 newsletter (The CACREP Connection) by then-Chair John Culbreath were (a) an application process to select an independent board composed of persons unaffiliated with an ACA divisional interest, (b) an expanded vision of international accreditation of counselor preparation programs, and (c) a reexamination of the organizational name, particularly related to “other educational programs.” Additionally, sustained and successful discussions have begun between CACREP and the Commission on Rehabilitation Education (CORE) on unifying these counselor accrediting bodies. These and other evidences indi-cate that the horizon looks quite promising for a 21st-century version of CACREP to be focused on curricular advancement and refinement as well as organizational vitality and relevance.
McGlothlin and Davis note that the benefits of accreditation to the student are demonstrated in terms of acquired knowledge for formal credentialing (e.g., certification, licensure), demonstrated competency for practice, and participation in professional acculturation for identity. As a form of specialized accreditation, CACREP offers a formal means of assuring quality preparation for the practice of professional counseling.
- Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs: http://www.cacrep.org
- McGlothlin, J. M., & Davis, T. E. (2004). Perceived benefit of CACREP (2001) core curriculum standards. Counselor Education and Supervision, 43, 274-285.
- Schmidt, J. J. (1999). Two decades of CACREP and what do we know? Counselor Education and Supervision, 39, 34-45.