Embrace the Changes: Reflecting on the 2018 SACSCOC Accreditation Standards

By: Will Miller

“The process provides an assessment of an institution’s effectiveness in the fulfillment of its self-defined mission; its compliance with the requirements of its accrediting association; and its continuing efforts to enhance the quality of student learning and its programs and services.”

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
The Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement 2018 Edition

I recently asked representatives from two of our Member Campuses—Stacy Edds-Ellis, Dean of Academic Affairs at Owensboro Community and Technical College (OCTC), and Christine Mee, Executive Director of Institutional Research, Assessment and Analysis at Coastal Carolina University (CCU)—to reflect on the new accreditation standards from the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Here’s a recap of the biggest takeaways from our conversation.

Student success and general education

Perhaps the biggest development for SACSCOC is the reframing of the main concepts to highlight student success. Under the new standards, student success has become the umbrella for concepts traditionally housed under institutional effectiveness. As stated in Section 8, “Student learning and student success are at the core of the mission of all institutions of higher learning.” The new SACSCOC standards don’t just require institutions to showcase their ability to graduate students on time, they also ask for evidence of student learning, both in and out of the classroom.

OCTC, a two-year technical college, is working with the Campus Labs team to transition over to Campus Labs® Outcomes. Stacy explained how the integrated tools for outcomes assessment will help OCTC capture data to evaluate student learning and success for both programs and administrative units. Given the technical efficiencies of the Campus Labs tools, faculty and staff will be able to devote more time and energy to acting on their data, as opposed to just compiling reports. Not only will this help stakeholders verify they’re meeting the OCTC mission, it will facilitate buy-in from the campus community.

General education is another area that reflects a new focus. Under the 2018 standards, campuses are asked to thoughtfully report on their general-education initiatives using data about student learning outcomes. This won’t require much of a shift for OCTC since the campus has always treated general education as a distinct program. By contrast, CCU, a four-year liberal arts institution, has never treated gen-ed as a separate program, and so like many campuses, it will encounter some hurdles. Faculty won’t simply need to complete reports; they’ll also have to show evidence of student learning outcomes through their gen-ed courses.

We're just changing another piece of the principles, but still trying to get at the quality: Are we serving our students? Are we showing that our students are graduating and are successful? — Christine Mee

Financial literacy and board evaluations

Another significant development is the heightened focus on financial literacy. Christine speculated that the new standard has been inspired not only by average student debt, but the fact that some students take out more loans than might be necessary. No longer will short-term measures, such as pre-counseling for borrowers or an exit interview for graduates, be enough to serve the needs of students. Campuses should instead devise an approach that includes targeted counseling throughout college. To evaluate the financial literacy of students, campuses should identify reviewers who have financial expertise but no conflicts of interest.

The new emphasis on board evaluations will also pose unique challenges. Because board members volunteer their time and energy, it’s important to train them without alienating them. Both Stacy and Christine plan to conduct SACSCOC-specific sessions at a retreat before the fall 2018 term for their respective boards.

It's valuable to talk to these different groups about ‘this is who we are and how we do business, rather than preparing for a core standard or preparing for a federal requirement just to be in compliance. — Stacy Edds-Ellis

Moving forward with the new standards

Timing will be a key aspect to success. Since CCU’s Fifth-Year Interim Report is due in March, Christine’s team has opted to respond under the old template while retrofitting the narrative content to fit the revised standards. Her advice for campuses in the same situation is to first draw up a list of pros and cons for adopting the new template. Depending on how far along the campus is in the writing process, it may be easier to use the old template, even though content will be evaluated using the new standards. With OCTC’s Fifth-Year Interim Report not due for another three years, Stacy remarked, “I have a lot of empathy and sympathy for our peer institutions that are backed up against a deadline and trying to understand what’s being instituted immediately.”

With the new standards, the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) can become a true extension of an institution’s existing programs and strategic plan. The value of a QEP, Stacy explained, is that it “allows your institution to be more intentional with improving your mission, and how you serve students.”

Both Stacy and Christine praised the new SACSCOC standards for setting an affirmative and aspirational tone, which will make it easier for them to communicate with stakeholders as they begin the accreditation reporting process. The lead-in paragraphs and section headings underscore the big-picture nature of accreditation reporting, with a focus on mission and stewardship of resources.

Looking beyond compliance

Gathering data and then compiling reports is the conventional way to meet the demands of accreditation. But how much more could be achieved with a solution centered on real-time data that yields insights for immediate action and improvement? Indeed, the right resources can set the stage for meaningful progress, help campuses stay focused on their mission, and empower them to operate beyond accreditation standards. The reinvigorated standards presented at the 2017 SACSCOC Annual Meeting in Dallas give colleges and universities an opportunity to put this concept into action.

Photo of Dr. Stacy Edds-Ellis

Dr. Stacy Edds-Ellis

Stacy Edds-Ellis, PhD, began her career at Owensboro Community and Technical College in 2002 as the Director of Discover College, a collaboration between OCTC and area high schools that offers students the chance to experience college while still in high school. Currently serving as Dean of Academic Affairs, Stacy is also OCTC’s SACSCOC Accreditation Liaison. Her areas of oversight include the Division of Professional and Technical Studies, accreditations, and the Discover College dual-credit/Early College programs.

Photo of Chris Mee, M.Ed.

Chris Mee, M.Ed.

Christine Mee began working at Carolina Coastal University in 1989 as a research analyst in the Office of Institutional Research. She currently serves as Executive Director of Planning and Research in the Office of Institutional Research, Assessment and Analysis. She is also the SACSCOC Accreditation Liaison for CCU. An active member in the Association of Institutional Research (AIR), Southern Association of Institutional Research (SAIR), and the South Carolina Association for Institutional Research (SCAIR), Chris has served as a SACSCOC peer evaluator since 2008.

Photo of Will Miller

Will Miller

Assistant Vice President, Campus Adoption | Campus Labs

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.