What happens when you use your data in a more proactive way? When, in addition to fulfilling the requirements of external stakeholders, you leverage the information to help your campus thrive? By operating beyond accreditation and other standards, campuses can set the stage for meaningful improvement. In fact, examining the many issues addressed in today’s standards can help institutions understand what these standards reveal about the future of higher education.
Various cross-pressures on campus routinely compete for the attention of institutional stakeholders. Faculty, staff, board members, politicians, taxpayers, employers, parents, and students all ask questions and make requests. These then influence the decisions institutions make to help ensure each student—and ultimately, the entire campus—succeeds. Yet when it comes to shaping the processes and policies on any given campus, regional accrediting bodies often play a more pivotal role than any other entity. Rather than focusing on the standards solely to meet compliance requirements, campuses should see them as an opportunity to explore more innovative approaches.
Consider the following criteria for accreditation from the six main regional accrediting agencies in the United States today:
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), Standard 2.1: “The institution has a clearly defined, comprehensive, and published mission specific to the institution and appropriate for higher education. The mission addresses teaching and learning and, where applicable, research and public service.”
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), Standard 1: “The institution’s mission defines its purpose within the context of higher education, the students it serves, and what it intends to accomplish. The institution’s stated goals are clearly linked to its mission and specify how the institution fulfills its mission.”
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), Standard 1.1: “The institution’s formally approved statements of purpose are appropriate for an institution of higher education and clearly define its essential values and character and ways in which it contributes to the public good.”
- Higher Learning Commission (HLC), Criterion 1: “The institution’s mission is clear and articulated publicly; it guides the institution’s operations.”
- Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC-CIHE), Standard 1: “The institution’s mission and purposes are appropriate to higher education, consistent with its charter or other operating authority, and implemented in a manner that complies with the Standards of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. The institution’s mission gives direction to its activities and provides a basis for the assessment and enhancement of the institution’s effectiveness.”
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), Standard 1.A.2: “The institution defines mission fulfillment in the context of its purpose, characteristics, and expectations. Guided by that definition, it articulates institutional accomplishments or outcomes that represent an acceptable threshold or extent of mission fulfillment.”
A common thread through all six is the desire for institutions to have meaningful mission statements. Moreover, institutions are encouraged to assure accreditors that all the work done on campus—from assessment to student services to research—is driven by, and in line with, their stated mission. By remaining mission-driven, institutions can support student success while also making accreditation reporting a valuable opportunity to champion the triumphs on campus. Yet while accrediting bodies push institutions to be mission-driven, a rigid strategy of compliance can have the opposite effect.
If you’ve ever worked on a campus the year an accreditation report is due, you know all too well how routines can be disrupted. Once it’s known that an on-site team is coming to visit, typical processes are thrown out the window. Staff and faculty work feverishly to demonstrate their offices are in compliance. Questions are posed to departments and students so as to make sure the IE office can check a particular box or demonstrate how the strategic goals align with the wishes of a regional accreditor. During these hectic periods, campus staff can’t help but respond in a reactive manner. Even with accreditors asking them—even urging them—to be mission-driven, their behavior is driven by a preoccupation with meeting compliance requirements. But why?
For one thing, the fear of having any issue of concern raised by a regional accreditor is real. Public sanctions harm an institution’s reputation, and in today’s environment of increased consumer awareness and political interference, this can directly inhibit a campus from fulfilling its mission. Further, no matter what innovations or solutions a campus may wish to consider, compliance is still necessary. A tool that helps an institution address concerns in a pioneering way is great—so long as administrative leaders can still communicate their results to SACSCOC, HLC, or another accrediting body in a way that makes sense to reviewers.
Additionally, by overemphasizing past experiences, campuses prioritize the process and inadvertently set themselves up for a struggle. For example, if your faculty has been instructed that outcomes assessment must be completed as part of the accreditation process—without being shown the internal value of this data—they have been conditioned to clear the lowest bar. After all, if the accreditors are satisfied, why do more? This approach removes the true value of the regional accreditation process and directly goes against the stated intentions of the accrediting bodies.
How, then, can higher education bring about a paradigm shift regarding an approach to accreditation? Here are four suggestions.
1. Challenge your campus to pursue innovative initiatives because they help your students, and embrace the true spirit of a standard.
Consider the current revisions to the SACSCOC Standards. One of two entirely new requirements (12.6) states: “The institution provides information and guidance to help student borrowers understand how to manage their debt and repay their loans.” A compliance-focused approach would likely allow you to demonstrate policies that show how all students receive entrance and exit counseling. With that, you have satisfied the technicalities of the standard. But how about the spirit of the standard? Wouldn’t it be even better to survey students about financial stress during their first year? Those who express concern too early in career sessions could be helped further to confirm they’re making smart financial decisions. Maybe there can be a follow-up in their third and fourth year—and again at graduation—to see if the campus can help them feel better informed and capable of meeting their financial obligations.
2. See accreditation reports as opportunities to demonstrate how to help students succeed through a mission-driven approach to higher education.
Accreditation can lead institutions to be reactive. Internal stakeholders dig up every report and data point from previous years and work to craft a narrative to best reflect the collective performance. Imagine, instead, if campuses devoted the same energy to what they did between accreditation reports. Rather than focusing solely on compliance, a campus could exercise vigor in enacting new programs, policies, and procedures. Once these new initiatives are enacted and successful, the results could be used to demonstrate how an institution is compliant with regional accreditation criteria.
3. Treat accreditation as an ongoing process instead of an episodic event.
Every four years, a campus may know it is time to think about accreditation. While certain individuals or roles may be thinking about the accreditation process more regularly, the campus at large can fail to integrate accreditation into its standard operations in a meaningful way. The process can come off as an even greater burden than it actually is. By aligning on-campus work with accreditation requirements, stakeholders can become less fearful of the process and start to figure out the many ways accreditation can help demonstrate the value they receive from their ongoing assessment activities.
4. Remember that accreditation review teams consist of your peers.
Perhaps more than anything, campus stakeholders should find comfort and inspiration in knowing that regional accreditation review teams are made up of peers. These aren’t monolithic bureaucrats; they are individuals on campuses like yours who hold similar positions. Their day-to-day struggles and concerns mirror yours. And most importantly, they probably wish their campuses could improve beyond compliance as well.
Ultimately, institutions themselves control what is and isn’t accepted by regional accreditors. Even though new approaches may not directly correlate with traditional ways of presenting assessment results or faculty credentials, it doesn’t mean they won’t work. In fact, they might even be better. Quality enhancement can be more meaningful and accreditation can mean more than compliance, but only if institutions are willing to take a few risks and think outside the checkbox.
Will Miller, PhD, leverages data best practices to help campuses make strategic decisions. He joined the Campus Labs team in 2016, after serving as a faculty member and senior administrator at Flagler College in Florida. There, as Executive Director of Institutional Analytics, Effectiveness, and Planning, he helped transform the campus-wide outcomes assessment process. He also served as Accreditation Liaison to the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC). Before joining Flagler, he held faculty positions at Southeast Missouri State University, Notre Dame College, and Ohio University. His courses have explored topics in political science, public policy, program evaluation, and organizational behavior. His scholarly pursuits focus on assessment, campaigns and elections, polling, political psychology, and the pedagogy of political science and public administration.