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What are Certification, Licensing, and Accreditation?

The term certification is often used as a catch-all term for several different activities that apply to the credentialing of individuals and institutions. This fuzziness of definition has resulted in confusion when it comes to discussing credentials. This article is intended to provide more clarity on the subject.


Certification
is essentially the process of publicly attesting that a specified quality or standard has been achieved or exceeded. We see this in an informal way all around us nearly every day. For example, when a product has the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, it means that the item has been attested to meet the standard set for it. Whenever we make a recommendation or referral to a colleague or client we are informally certifying the competence of the person or the quality of the item being recommended.

Professional certification uses a formal process to identify and acknowledge individuals who have met a recognized standard. Usually this standard includes education, experience, and an exam of knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to perform the job. When an individual meets the standard, he or she receives certification from a certifying agency. The credibility and integrity of the certifying agency determines whether the agency’s certification means anything to the public, and therefore, ultimately, its value. Accordingly, certification agencies may seek out recognition by an outside agency that will, in turn, attest to the certifying agency meeting a standard. Generally, this standard involves the qualification requirements to take the exam, whether the exam meets accepted psychometric standards for exam development, how the exam is given and scored, how the agency is administered, and whether its rules are fair. The National Organization for Competency Assurance operates the National Commission for Certifying Agencies for that purpose.

Professional certification is a voluntary process by which a non-governmental professional organization grants recognition to an individual who has met certain qualifications. It is a credential which attests that the individual has demonstrated a certain level of mastery of a specific body of knowledge and skills within the relevant field of practice. Certification should not be confused with either licensing or accreditation. While each involves some type of evaluation and the awarding of some type of credential, they are quite different from one another and the terms should not be used interchangeably.


Licensure
is a non-voluntary process by which an agency of government regulates a profession. It grants permission to an individual to engage in an occupation if it finds that the applicant has attained the degree of competency required to ensure the public health, safety, and welfare will be reasonably protected. Licensing it always based on the action of a legislative body. Once a licensing law has been passed it becomes illegal for anyone to engage in that occupation unless he or she has a license. The health care professions are typically licensed at the state and/or local level, but not usually at the federal level.

Two regulatory variations are state certification (not to be confused with professional certification referred to elsewhere in this article) and registration. These generally are somewhat less restrictive than licensing, but how each is defined exactly can vary from state to state.

Certification differs from licensing in that it is nearly always offered by a private, non-governmental agency. Such agencies are usually outgrowths of professional associations which create certifying agencies to identify and acknowledge those who have met a standard. Another contrast with licensure is that, under a licensing law, practitioners of the licensed occupation must have a license in order to practice. It is involuntary. On the other hand, certification is voluntary. One does not have to be certified in order to practice. An individual takes the certification exam because they want to enjoy the benefits of certification. However, to use the title and initials copyrighted and associated with the professional certification, one must be certified.


Accreditation
is a non-governmental, voluntary process that evaluates institutions, agencies, and educational programs, (i.e., institutions that grant certificates or diplomas) while certification and licensing involves individual practitioners. Accreditation is defined as the process whereby an agency or association grants public recognition to a school, institute, college, university, or specialized program of study (such as a massage training program) for having met certain established qualifications or standards as determined through initial and periodic evaluations that usually involve submitting a self-evaluation report, site inspection by a team of experts, and evaluation by an independent board or commission.


Summary Chart

Credential Recipient Credentialing Body Participation
Certification Individual Association/Agency Voluntary
Licensure/State Certification Individual Government Agency Involuntary/Required
Accreditation Institution or Program Association/Agency Voluntary
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