I recently found that the largest share of students in program X at my school do not need to take classes on topic ABC, even though topic ABC is considered as critical and fundamental by virtually everybody in the field. (Think of physics but no mechanics class)

In fact, I can't believe anybody would give them accreditation without making ABC a required topic.

Which makes me wonder: Are there any official criteria in the US about what a majors in X, Y, or Z must cover in the United States? Can a school just decide arbitrarily what needs to be covered in their majors? Can those criteria be seen in public?

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    I was a chemistry major at a university that anyone anywhere would say is legit, top-notch. There was one class that was not required to graduate, but was required to say your degree was American Chemical Society [something]. I don’t remember if the [something] was accredited, certified, or something else. I don’t remember all the details- 30 years ago. – Damila Mar 1 at 22:28
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    Even if a topic is fundamental in a field, it is sometimes a bit of a judgement call if this translates into upper level undergraduate course or beginning graduate course for those going on to graduate school. Nobody questions, for example, that Real Analysis is one of those things that all mathematicians should know, but many math students first encounter it formally in graduate school. Similar remarks can be made about Complex Variables. Since you didn't give any details, it is hard to judge if the situation is as intellectually scandalous as you suggest. – John Coleman Mar 2 at 10:51
  • @JohnColeman Disclosure, Real Analysis is what I was thinking about. My school is a leader in quality and numbers. I can't wrap my around the fact that students might never see Cauchy sequences (or, in fact, complex numbers). – Ambicion Mar 2 at 14:39
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    @Ambicion Not everyone goes to graduate school. In addition, some students might e.g. be double majors in mathematics and computer science. For such students, real analysis isn't all that important, much better to have a second course in discrete mathematics. I would worry if Real Analysis wasn't an elective that students who are interested in graduate school are advised to take. I wouldn't worry if it isn't a required class. – John Coleman Mar 2 at 14:56
  • @Damila: See my answer below. – Michael Seifert Mar 2 at 15:57

This is an addition to the other answers.

Most professional bodies publish guidelines on what majors in their fields should include. For example, a joint committee of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers) publish guidelines for what should be part of a computer science major. The MAA (Mathematical Association of America) publish guidelines on what should be part of a mathematics major.

In some cases, these guidelines are quite specific. In others, they are much more vague. The ACM guidelines are fairly specific. For largely political reasons, the MAA guidelines are fairly vague. (This is because departments at universities with more academically capable student bodies and or PhD programs want guidelines that would prepare students for graduate school, while departments at universities with less academically capable student bodies know that they have no students capable of completing such a program of study.)

These are guidelines, not requirements, but they are reasonably influential because many professors do pay attention to them. In addition, as mentioned above, in certain subjects, there is subject specific accreditation that may impose requirements on the departments involved.


There are no national criteria for such things and unlikely to be statewide criteria outside state universities, perhaps.

But almost all US universities are accredited, usually by one of the regional accrediting agencies, though there are a few other options (for medical school, for example). This doesn't, however, in involve required courses in majors, but is an overall evaluation of the quality (and commitment to quality) of the university, not the specifics of its individual programs.

Individual majors can, and often are, accredited by other, less formal agencies. In CS, the accreditation is normally by ABET, but it isn't required.

Accreditation involves a preparation of documents by the institution or department, followed by a visit by academics from other institutions who are qualified to judge the quality. Some negotiation may follow the visit, resulting in changes. Then a judgement is made..

So, no, there is no real requirement that any particular thing needs to be covered, as long as the institution can make a case that the agency and its evaluators deem valid.

See https://www.ed.gov/accreditation, for overall accreditation procedures.


Are there any official criteria in the US about what a majors in X, Y, or Z must cover in the United States? Can a school just decide arbitrarily what needs to be covered in their majors?

No, unless a licensing body (e.g. engineering or nursing) is involved. Education is managed by the states in the US, and generally speaking, state governments don't mandate curricula to the universities, because universities are generally the state agencies that have the expertise in X, Y, and Z.

Can those criteria be seen in public?

Yep - sometimes it's buried in a very technical page, but I've never seen degree criteria restricted to students only. Here is an example page.

So, no, you can't say "Ah, this person has a physics degree from (the US|a given state), they must have learned topic X."

Accreditation in the US does this:

  1. Standards: The agency, in collaboration with educational institutions and/or programs, establishes standards.
  2. Self-study: The institution or program seeking accreditation prepares an in-depth self-evaluation report that measures its performance against the standards established by the agency.
  3. On-site evaluation: A team of peers selected by the agency reviews the institution or program on-site to determine first-hand if the applicant meets the established standards.
  4. Decision and publication: Upon being satisfied that the applicant meets its standards, the agency grants accreditation or preaccreditation status and lists the institution or program in an official publication with other similarly accredited or preaccredited institutions or programs. Only public and private non-profit institutions can qualify to award federal student aid based on preaccreditation.
  5. Monitoring: The agency monitors each accredited institution or program throughout the period of accreditation granted to verify that it continues to meet the accreditor's standards.
  6. Reevaluation: The agency periodically reevaluates each institution or program that it lists to ascertain whether continuation of its accredited or preaccredited status is warranted.

Generally, this is more concerned with ensuring it is a real school, with qualified professors, doing real teaching, not examining whether certain topics are taught.

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    Accreditation sometimes comes into play in specific disciplines too. For example, architecture schools are accredited by the National Architectural Accrediting Board, and they have criteria, at least in a broad sense, for areas that need to be covered (e.g. you've got to teach students something about "Health, Safety, and Welfare in the Built Environment"). That Board is not a licensing body, but a degree from an accredited program can be part of the licensing process. ABET has a similar role for engineering. – Zach Lipton Mar 2 at 6:06

As the other answers have pointed out, this is largely field-specific. One interesting example is that of chemistry, where the American Chemical Society offers an approval program for departments. If a department wants to offer an "ACS-certified" major, they can submit the course list and other information to the ACS, who will give it their stamp of approval (or not.)

However, nothing stops a chemistry department from offering a non-certified major. In fact, the chemistry department at my institution offers both certified and non-certified majors in chemistry.

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