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Preparing for accreditation

Preparing for accreditation

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

Accreditation is the process by which colleges and universities demonstrate that they meet certain standards of quality, as determined by specific accrediting agencies. Accreditation can apply to individual programs or to whole institutions

Programmatic accreditation is more discipline-specific or narrowly focused. For example, early in my academic career I had the pleasure of writing an accreditation self-study, as the institution where I was working was attempting to earn accreditation for its athletic training program. I’m happy to report that the attempt was successful … stressful, but successful. Institutional accreditation usually refers to a college or university being accredited by one of six regional accreditation organizations and is often much more
comprehensive.

The six regional accreditation organizations include:
• Middle States Commission on Higher Education
• New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
• North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission
• Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
• Western Association of Schools and Colleges
• Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

If you are currently serving as an administrator, chances are you have been involved in the process of collecting data for and writing an accreditation self-study, or you have helped plan and execute an accreditation visit on your campus.

There’s really nothing quite like preparing for an accreditation visit. It is something I think all who work in higher education should experience at least once in their career. The remainder of this article will be dedicated to ideas that can help you prepare for your next accreditation visit.

An accreditation checklist
• To prepare for an accreditation visit, many institutions create an accreditation task force or steering committee. This group could include faculty, staff, administrators, students, alumni, community members, and other stakeholders you think could provide valuable contributions.

• Its leader should be someone who can shepherd the process — preferably someone with powerful organizational skills, the ability to keep others on task, and a thick skin. Many times either the assessment coordinator on campus or the director of institutional research is tapped to lead the effort, as these individuals usually enjoy collecting, analyzing and disseminating data — something not all of us love to do.

• Many accrediting agencies, especially the large regional accreditors, assign a campus liaison. Liaisons can serve as an exceptional resource as campus staff prepare their self-study and plan the site visit. Liaisons are often underutilized, so don’t make this mistake. Use your liaison to the fullest extent possible!

• Establish a timeline early in the process of what needs to be done when. It could include creating the steering committee, making sure all needed data is collected and analyzed, writing and reviewing rough drafts, and defining deadlines for submitting materials to the accrediting agency. Once a timeline is established, stick to it! Again, it is vital to have someone leading the effort who is task-oriented and will keep everyone else on task.

• Most of the time, institutions are required to complete a self-study. There are usually guides available to help in the preparation of the self-study, and it is important to provide the information requested. Many times a narrative is required to address specific questions as well as additional evidence or appendices that must be supplied. Self-studies can get to be hundreds, or even thousands of pages with all of the additional documentation. Again, follow your accrediting agency’s instructions for submitting paper or electronic self-studies.

• Maintain transparency throughout the entire process. It has been my experience in every higher education institution where I’ve worked that a small, and often very vocal minority of faculty and staff, are extremely skeptical of anything administrators attempt to do. Even more frustrating, these individuals many times don’t step up to help with or participate in whatever it is they are criticizing. Enhance transparency by holding regular open forums on campus, sending regular accreditation progress updates to the campus community, and sharing rough drafts of sections of the self-study with requests for feedback.

• There is usually a site visit associated with accreditation. The visit’s primary purpose is simply to verify what an institution has provided in the self-study. The logistics of a two- to three-day site visit can be overwhelming. A visit can involve travel, lodging and meal arrangements, and creating an agenda that includes whom visitors will be meeting with while on campus and where those meetings will occur.

A site-visit team will often request a workroom or control center to serve as a base camp while on campus. Members may request computers, printers and scanners to use during their visit. They often ask to have hard copies of the self-study, handbooks, policy and procedures manuals and other documents the institution can provide as support. Some institutions hire consultants to guide them through accreditation, and some even go so far as to schedule a mock site visit to help determine strengths, deficiencies, etc. Avoid scheduling the site visit during busy times such as the beginning or end of the semester.

• Online administrators may be asked to provide information for the self-study related to the professional development opportunities for online instructors, online resources, student support services for online students, and the quality-assurance measures in place related to online programming. A number of large program/institutional-level quality-assurance reviews/certifications are now available. Two examples include the United States Distance Learning Association’s Quality Standards Certification, and the Online Learning Consortium’s Quality Scorecard. Though not directly related to accreditation, completing one of these quality assurance reviews can help with the preparation of a self-study and demonstrate to an accrediting agency that an institution is serious about the quality of online education.

Although challenging, the accreditation process can yield numerous benefits. An institution’s strengths can be highlighted; areas in need of improvement can be identified; it can bring faculty, staff and administrators closer together; and hopefully the end result will include the validation that an institution is offering high quality educational opportunities to its students.