In recent decades, academic institutions seeking accreditation have been called upon to demonstrate continuous improvement in all areas. The extensive accreditation and reaffirmation process required of colleges and universities every ten years, as well as their five-year plans to apply for first-time reaffirmation, clearly demonstrate this trend.
The result: During any given year, academic institutions must consistently improve their data collection processes, update their curricula, and maintain other documentation which falls under the oversight of their accrediting agency.
Furthermore, institutions of higher education must show evidence of their organizational improvement at the same time as they are delivering their educational services to students and communities. It is therefore imperative that stakeholders—from the president or chancellor to academic deans and their faculty—continuously seek to improve the quality of education and services they provide rather than wait for a particular accreditation year to gather evidence and implement changes.
U.S. Accrediting Agencies
While in the past a college or university’s accreditation process was primarily self-governed, currently in the U.S. an institution seeking accreditation may need to apply to federal, state, and/or non-governmental regional accrediting agencies, as well as to agencies that provide accreditation for specialized fields and departments within an academic institution.
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) provides a complete directory of accrediting agencies which it recognizes for the academic year 2017-2018. Below are the six regional U.S. accreditation agencies for colleges and universities:
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC-CIHE) Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
Self-Study Assessment & The “Continuous Improvement” Approach
The accreditation process usually requires that the institution under consideration implement an intensive self-study as part of its initial application process, an example of which is made available on each accreditation agency’s website. Here is an example of a self-study report for the department of engineering in a fictitious university.
Note: An assessment method based upon the “continuous improvement” model is offered by some accrediting agencies as an alternative to the traditional self-study report.
SACSCOC Steps Towards Accreditation: An Example
As an example, listed below are steps towards accreditation included for SACSCOC, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Steps for membership into an accrediting organization may vary according to regional and/or accrediting agency requirements.
1. Representatives of the institution applying for candidacy attend any conferences or pre-applicant workshops as required by the accrediting institution (for example, SACSCOC).
2. The institution submits an application and undergoes an initial review.
3. Staff of the accrediting institution review the application, and the institution seeking candidacy submits additional information as required.
4. The accrediting organization authorizes a Candidacy Committee Visit and the applicant is granted candidacy status.
5. The Candidacy Committee Visit takes place. If candidacy status is granted, an Accreditation Committee Visit to the candidate’s institution is granted.
6. The Accreditation Committee Visit takes place and the committee compiles a report. The candidate responds by making the required changes or by providing additional information, evidence, or substantive changes in order to be granted membership.
Criteria for Accreditation
Each accreditation organization recognized by CHEA requires that the applying university demonstrate how their institution meets the five main criteria of accreditation. The University of Notre Dame’s list of accreditation criteria to the HLC states the criteria as follows:
- Criterion One: Mission
- Criterion Two: Integrity—Ethical and Responsible Conduct
- Criterion Three: Teaching and Learning—Quality, Resources and Support
- Criterion Four: Teaching and Learning—Evaluation and Improvement
- Criterion Five: Resources, Planning, and Institutional Effectiveness
Together, all stakeholders of the institution applying for accreditation must be united in their vision for the university and how it is meeting these criteria.
Each stakeholder has particular roles and responsibilities throughout the accreditation process, and must stay engaged over time as the institution works towards accreditation.
Stakeholder Roles & Responsibilities
- Serves as the primary contact point between the accrediting agency and the institution.
- Appoints the IE officer.
- Conveys the accrediting organization’s practices and policies to the Board of Trustees and the provost.
- Instills in all other stakeholders a united vision and direction for the university during the accreditation process.
- Appoints a steering committee comprised of representatives from each group of stakeholders to work with the accreditation agency’s staff.
- Collaborates with the institution’s faculty senate representative to ensure that appropriate sub-committees for the accreditation process are formed (or appoints someone to do so).
- Provides each stakeholder under their chain of command with the appropriate budget to direct and carry out their accreditation assignments.
- Receives regular input on the accreditation process from the president and the IE officer.
- Communicates concerns about the accreditation process to the academic deans and requests that they make the required changes within their departments.
- Maintains consistent communication with the IE officer and disseminates information down the academic chain of command regarding additions and substantive changes needed for the accreditation process.
- Provides data as necessary to the institutional research officer and keeps communication lines open with the office of institutional research.
Institutional Effectiveness Officer
- Is appointed by the president, chancellor, or other CEO.
- Serves as a direct point of contact for the accrediting organization along with the CEO.
- Acts as a liaison between the accrediting agency and the other stakeholders, serving as the key resource person during the self-study process.
- Manages procedures to assure that the institution follows the correct file collection process.
- Coordinates visits from the accrediting agency.
- Prepares stakeholders and institutional departments accordingly.
Institutional Research Officer
- Gathers and provides data for the accreditation liaisons.
- Makes requests for information to the other stakeholders based upon information provided by the IE.
- Maintains communication with the CEO, the IEO, the provost, and the academic deans.
Deans of Schools & Colleges
- Provide faculty with appropriate tools to carry out the required self-study report, usually due 12-16 months after the institution attends the initial pre-application workshop.
- Work in cooperation with IE officers, IR officers, the provost, and the faculty.
- Make sure their department faculty are properly credentialed.
- Ensure that faculty courses are adequately staffed, either directly or through delegating that responsibility to department heads.
- Ensure that department heads involve their faculty in the curriculum development process before, during, and after the application for initial accreditation application is submitted.
Common Threads for Engagement
In order for institutions to successfully meet candidacy and membership requirements during the extensive accreditation process, emphasis must be placed on communication that reaches all stockholders. Stockholders must engage in both lateral and vertical communication throughout the process, through both the academic chain of command as well as through maintaining communication with accreditation liaison officers within the university and with the accrediting agency.
Furthermore, since improvements in institutional content and structure are ongoing as per the “consistent improvement” model, all stakeholders must be aware that the accreditation process is a fluid and dynamic one, requiring consistent and systematic updating on an itinerant basis.