ACOE’s rigorous accreditation process safeguards standards for optometric education

December 22, 2022
The council’s nationally recognized, 13-member accrediting panel ensures optometry schools meet the highest educational standards.
ACOE’s rigorous accreditation process safeguards standards for optometric education

A rigorous accreditation process based on strict adherence to high standards continues to contribute to the strength of optometric education and the demanding nature of optometric degree programs.

Administered by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE), which is recognized as an independent accrediting body by the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies, recently compiled new program accreditation data indicates a measured increase in new optometry schools over the past decade and a half. This contrasts with the rapid establishment of new dental schools and certain other health degree programs over the same time.

“The ACOE serves the public and the profession of optometry by establishing, maintaining and applying standards to ensure the academic quality and continuous improvement of optometric education that reflect the contemporary practice of optometry,” notes the council’s mission statement. “The scope of the ACOE encompasses professional optometric degree programs, optometric residency programs and optometric technician programs.”

The ACOE routinely employs a comprehensive and continual review process to ensure such accreditation standards remain high. So high, in fact, that the full process for a professional optometric degree program to earn accreditation may take years with the ACOE requiring approval for applicants to continue to each subsequent stage. Between 2005 and 2020, at least three proposed programs chose to hold or discontinue this multi-step accreditation process.

In May 2023, Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions (RMUoHP) in Provo, Utah, will open to its inaugural class, becoming the 26th accredited optometry program in the U.S. and Canada, and the first in six years. The institution received preliminary approval for accreditation from the ACOE in October.

Per the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry data, the opening of two new schools since 2015 increased enrollment by 6.4% with 2020-2021 enrollment at 7,339 full-time students across 25 programs. The ACOE’s accreditation standards lay out expectations for these programs and assures that all programs:

  • Have and monitor success in achieving their mission, goals and objectives.
  • Have curricula that aligns with their mission, goals and objectives.
  • Have research and scholarly activity supported.
  • Have sufficient and qualified faculty in place.
  • Have facilities, equipment and appropriate fiscal and administrative capacity.
  • Have students (and residents) admitted via an impartial process, and that such students exhibit intelligence, integrity and maturity, as well as are provided adequate support and clinical experiences.

“There is tremendous respect across the profession for the independence and expertise of the ACOE, which is fully recognized as an accrediting and standard-setting body at the highest levels,” says AOA President Robert C. Layman, O.D. “From the AOA’s standpoint, there will continue to be a strong focus throughout our organization on supporting appropriately rigorous standards and insisting on full enforcement.”

Trends in health care education show growth

The establishment of new optometry schools contrasts sharply with dentistry’s experience, which is on pace to exceed the opening of one new school per year between 2008 and 2015.

Per American Dental Association (ADA) Health Policy Institute data, 13 new dental programs opened across the United States in the past 14 years with another five programs slated to open over the next three years. Currently, the total number of accredited U.S. dental programs sits at 70 with an additional 10 programs in Canada, in turn driving dental school enrollment to its highest point ever.

The ADA’s most recent data shows overall 2021-2022 U.S. dental school enrollment above 26,000 students, an historic level, well-surpassing the nearest peak enrollment of 22,800 students from 60 schools in 1980-1981. Notably by the late-1980s and early-1990s, roughly 10% of dental schools shuttered in response to the declining amount and quality of program applicants, as well as financial issues.

But dentistry isn’t the only health profession seeing a recent enrollment influx and degree program expansion. Trends show increasing numbers of other medical and osteopathic programs, too, including:

In fact, medical schools saw a record-setting 17.8% increase in applicants for the 2021-2022 school year, “making the first-year class of 2021 larger and more diverse than any before it,” the Association of American Medical Colleges notes.

Learn more ACOE about the  and read more about the council’s recent actions.

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