Accreditation in Higher Education: Ten Things to Know

Posted by Joe Bauman, M.S. on Sep 23, 2019 12:04:53 PM

Accreditation for institutions of higher education is essential for ensuring that your students are successful in their chosen career paths and for promoting institutional and programmatic excellence. The following outlines what every academic leader must know about the process.

1. There are two basic levels of accreditation, institutional and programmatic.

Institutional accreditation, as the name implies, covers the whole institution and is governed in the United States by regional accrediting agencies. For-profit institutions which focus on religion or career and vocational education may also be accredited by specialized national agencies.

Programmatic accreditation covers specific programs at an institution. These agencies often focus on programs such as nursing, engineering, and business and have their own standards apart from those set by regional or national agencies.

2. There are seven regional accreditors in the United States.

These seven accrediting agencies are the main source of institutional accreditation in the US. They are: the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association (HLC), the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). The latter two, WSCUC and ACCJC, are unique in that they focus on a single state (California) and focus on a specific tier of academia: WSCUC covers institutions granting baccalaureate degrees and higher, while ACCJC focuses on community and junior colleges. Some of the regional accreditors also accredit foreign institutions.

When choosing a software platform to facilitate the accreditation process, make sure that the provider is committed to loading your selected platform with all relevant and up to date standards. Accreditation software providers, like Strategic Planning Online (SPOL), constantly monitor accreditation committees and agencies to assure continuous, up to date standards.

3. Accreditation standards vary across the seven regional accreditors.

The number, language, and emphasis of the standards vary across the regional accreditors. For example, WSCUC and ACCJC emphasize the program review process. NWCCU focuses on “core themes,” which are the measurable ways in which the institution shows it is achieving its mission. HLC offers its member institutions choices, called Pathways, to demonstrate adherence to HLC standards. Agency standards vary in the details, and the details are very important. At the end of the day, though, the spirit behind standards is the same: institutions must demonstrate that they adhere to good practices in higher education and focus on institutional effectiveness.

4. Accreditation is voluntary.

While an institution can be licensed without accreditation, a non-accredited institution faces serious limitations. An institution must be accredited from an accrediting agency recognized by the US Department of Education before its students can receive Title IV financial aid. Institutional accreditation is also very helpful if students want to transfer to another institution: students from non-accredited institutions have a harder time getting their transfer credits accepted. Additionally, students may have a harder time finding a job in their field if they graduate from a non-accredited program, and in some cases they may not be eligible to take the licensure exams required in their field.

5. Accreditation is a peer-review process.

Accreditation standards were developed by faculty and administrators in higher education. Member institutions reviewed and voted on the standards before they went into effect. Accreditation standards reflect commonly accepted good practice in higher education, not an arbitrary mandate imposed from outside of academia. Accreditation reviewers are from peer institutions in higher education and are working through the same or similar challenges at their own institutions. They are colleagues, not adversaries.

For the regional accrediting agencies, the board of directors is typically composed of Presidents of member institutions. Any official action taken by an accrediting agency, such as granting accreditation to a new institution, reaffirming accreditation for an already-accredited institution, or putting an institution on warning is voted on by the board of directors of that agency.

6. Most accreditation reviews are a two-step process.

The first step is an off-site review. Institutions prepare a report detailing how they are meeting the standards of the accrediting agency. Some accrediting agencies call these standards “criteria.” The report is read by a team of off-site peer reviewers from different institutions. The off-site review team typically provides feedback to the institution that will help the institution prepare for the next step in the process, the on-site review.

For the on-site review, a team of peer reviewers (sometimes the same group as the off-site team, sometimes all new people) visit the institution. The visit usually lasts two to three days. The on-site review team will conduct a further review of the institution’s report and evidence, interview faculty, staff, and students, and see the institution with their own eyes. The on-site review team will share their feedback and recommendations with the institution. In most cases, the review team’s report is reviewed and voted upon by the accrediting agency’s board of directors.

7. Accreditation is about evidence.

Accreditation reports can include hundreds of pages of narrative, but what the reviewers are really looking for is documented evidence, not rhetoric. If an institution says that it manages the assessment process with an Assessment Committee, the reviewers will expect to see a membership roster, meeting agendas, and meeting minutes for that committee. For institutional policies, the reviewers will expect to see the actual text of the policy, minutes of the board meeting when the institution’s board voted on the policy, and cases in which the policy was enforced (e.g., demonstrated consequences for people who have violated the policy).

8. Preparing an accreditation report can take years.

It is not at all unusual for institutions to begin preparing for their accreditation report two years or more in advance of their report’s due date. In fact, one rule of thumb is that an institution should expect a reaffirmation report to take 18 to 24 months to prepare. Many institutions begin with an audit of internal processes and policies and review the large and small changes that have occurred at the institution since the last accreditation report. They then launch a committee to prepare the report. The committee may meet monthly at the start of the process, with more frequent meetings as the deadline approaches.

Institutions that hold off on launching the process until the report is due in a year or less typically find themselves wishing they had given themselves more time. One of the many advantages accreditation software platforms offer is the ability to facilitate continuous stakeholder input from one accreditation report to the next.

9. Accreditation is a team effort.

Accreditation standards are many and complex, and responding to all the standards is too big a job for one person. The subject matter expertise needed to respond effectively to the standards will be found in many different offices and individuals across an institution. For example, faculty members will be the best-suited to write about how they assess students and how they use results of assessment for the continuous improvement of their programs. The financial aid director will be best suited to write about the institution’s financial aid policies and how the policies are in compliance with federal requirements.

Many institutions will have a single individual with the title of Accreditation Liaison. This individual is the point person for the institution’s accreditation and is the main point of contact between the institution and the accrediting agency (for programmatic accreditation, the main point of contact is usually the department chair for that program). The institution’s Accreditation Liaison will usually be the person charged with compiling the institution’s accreditation report, typically with the help of a committee. The process will be more difficult, more time-consuming, and probably more likely to have a negative outcome (i.e., a sanction from the accreditor such as warning or probation) if this person is expected to produce the whole report him- or herself.

10. A well designed software platform can efficiently manage the process.

A software platform like SPOL’s Accreditation platform comes pre-loaded with all of the accreditation standards needed by an institution for its institutional and programmatic accreditations. The module gives institutions a way to assign accreditation standards to the most appropriate persons or offices across campus, write and format the narrative sections of the report, upload and maintain documents for evidence, and manage the workflow of the report-writing process.

Using SPOL’s other modules—Planning, Budgeting, Assessment, and Credentialing—together with Accreditation supports the reporting and evidence-collecting processes towards successful agency visits. SPOL also has a team of consultants with years of experience in accreditation who can offer insights and tips on how to make the process run smoothly.

Topics: Accreditation