Certification, Licensing and Accreditation--Know the Differences

By Caren Thornburgh, President Virtual Spa


This refers to the process of publicly attesting that a specified quality or standard has been achieved or exceeded. 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. 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. 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.

This is a non-voluntary process by which an agency of government regulates a professional. This agency grants permission to individuals to engage in an occupation if they find that the applicants have attained the degree of competency required to ensure that public health, safety, and welfare will be reasonably protected. Licensing is 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 they are licensed. Health care professions are typically licensed at the state and/or local level, but not typically at the federal level.

Two regulatory variations are state certification and registration; both are generally somewhat less restrictive than licensing.

Certification and Licensing differences include the fact that certification is nearly always offered by a private, non-governmental agency. Under licensing law, practitioners of the licensed occupation must have a license in order to practice. Licensing is involuntary. Certification is voluntary - one does not have to be certified in order to practice. To use the title and initials copyrighted and associated with professional certification, one must be certified.

Accreditation is a non-governmental, voluntary process that evaluates institutions, agencies, and educational programs, while certification and licensing involve 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.