Accreditation: Learning through a Participatory Process

Keith DavidsonSERIES: VIEWS OF ASSESSMENT (PART I)

Accreditation: Learning through a Participatory Process
Keith E. Davidson Jr., Indiana University of Pennsylvania

The Commission for Assessment and Evaluation (CAE) is pleased to sponsor this “Views of Assessment” series. Focusing on the experiences of student affairs educators working with assessment, the series highlights reflections from practitioners at different levels in their careers – graduate student, new professional, mid-level, and senior student affairs officer (SSAO). Each article offers rich narratives, personal experiences, and professional examples, as well as instructive wisdom and advice related to assessment practices and implementation. The first article in the series is from Keith Davidson about his experience with the accreditation process at the university level. Writing with candor, Keith’s insights are valuable for professionals wanting to understand more about the assessment process and how they can get involved.

Introduction
Once every ten years institutions of higher education are asked to embark upon a journey of self-exploration as part of the regional accreditation process. This process generally involves conducting thorough research of the institution to develop a comprehensive self-study document outlining how the institution is in compliance with the accreditor’s standards. In addition, a team of external reviewers also evaluates the institution during an intensive site visit to make their determination as to whether the institution is in compliance. As accreditation is directly tied to an institution’s ability to offer federal financial aid, many in higher education have distaste for the process. As a result, few employees elect to understand the benefits of performing the accreditation process and fewer yet choose to get involved.

According to Racine (n.d.), the development of a self study is “a collaborative and participatory process” (p. 109). In my experience as a graduate assistant working directly with accreditation, Racine’s statement is accurate; however, I think it is more applicable to say the entire process is collaborative and participatory. Unfortunately, the ten-year accreditation cycle and its negative connotation means many graduate students, new professionals, and even mid-level managers may not even know what it is or have an opportunity to get involved until late in their careers. In this next section, I will briefly explain accreditation and share some of my experiences with accreditation as a graduate student to emphasize the learning opportunity this process can provide for those at any level of their student affairs career.

What is Accreditation?
Accreditation as a general term can refer to two different processes by which institutions and programs receive a seal of approval from an external agency. The first form of accreditation, called specialized accreditation, refers specifically to an agency which reviews specific programs, typically academic programs, and provides them with some form of recognition for meeting the agency’s standard (CHEA, 2002). While specialized accreditation is more commonly the realm of academic affairs, regional accreditation impacts the entire institution and is the form of accreditation that will be discussed from this point forward. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA, 2002) defined regional accreditation as a process in which institutions undergo a critical self-assessment and external peer review in order to ensure quality control and assurance. While this definition seems straightforward, it is much more complicated in practice as there are six regional accreditors, each with their own standards and procedures for how to conduct the process.

While each regional accreditor has its own process, there are some aspects of accreditation that are common among them all. For starters, accreditation is a process that occurs in full every ten years with follow-up reports typically around the five-year mark. As a part of the process, institutions must develop a critical self-assessment document that, at minimum, addresses the agencies’ standards of accreditation. A second part of the process includes providing evidence to the agency that the institution is in compliance with all accreditation-relevant federal regulations (MSCHE, 2015). Following the completion of these two areas the agency will select a team of 8-12 peer reviewers to conduct a site visit and review of the institution’s self-study document. The review team will then deliver a report to the regional accreditor who will make a decision regarding the institution’s status with the agency that may include requirements to develop follow-up reports or include subsequent team visits.

In my experience, one of the biggest questions about accreditation that comes up is, “why should we care?” One of the simplest answers to this question—and the one most often stated by administrators—is failure to meet regional accreditation standards results in the inability of an institution to participate in the federal financial aid system. A better answer is the process allows for institutions to gather evidence that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both institutional and departmental level missions and goals. The analysis of weaknesses is perhaps the most important part of the process as the self study is also the place to put forward recommendations for future improvements. The process can also be an opportunity to develop an institutional culture of assessment and continual improvement if one does not already exist. Accreditation is not meant to be a one-time event that appeases accreditors; rather, it is meant to develop goals for which the institution will be held accountable for over the next ten years.

Politics
An institution’s self study document is the most important part of the accreditation process as it represents the institution’s past to the peer review team and starts the process of preparing for the institution’s future. The development of the document should not be an initiative undertaken by the institution’s administration; instead, the document should be created by the collaborative efforts of all members of the institution. Unfortunately, many in higher education are uninformed about accreditation, which leads to them not participating in the process (Wood, 2006).
A comprehensive self-study document is one of the ultimate forms of assessment. To develop the document, a multitude of different data gathering techniques are required such as survey, historical document review, focus groups, interviews, and many more. Given all of the different forms of information collection that are necessary, it should be apparent why individuals from all areas of higher education are needed to participate in the process. Relying on only a finite group of individuals would result in a lack of understanding of the various areas techniques. Furthermore, a diverse group of individuals working on the process increases the likelihood that someone will be an expert on a specific methodology and able to improve data collection in that area.

In my experience, picking the individuals who lead the development of a self study involves more politics than any other institutional initiative. To provide some context for this, consider that most self study documents are developed by a steering committee which generally creates subcommittees to research and write reports on the various standards of accreditation. Now, think about your institution and pick a team of 20 to 30 people from across divisions that would need to be on that committee. My guess is you will find this is not something you can do in five minutes off the top of your head. When it comes down to selecting the steering committee, a lot of factors go into consideration, and that is where politics comes into play. If you work in student affairs, your list would probably include people like the vice president, dean of students, director of housing, and so on; however, appointing 10 people from student affairs and leaving only 10-20 seats left for the other divisions is not providing an equal representation for all campus constituencies.

Decisions have to be made at this level of the process that involve saying the composition of the committee has to be this in order for everyone to be represented fairly. In some cases, one group may need to have more representation than another area because the institution’s mission or values are more heavily centered in that area. This can be where “territory” really starts to come out of employees. For example, not selecting the director of student housing for a spot on the committee may result in someone in that area saying, “My area clearly is not important to the institution.” However, that is not the case. I think the take home message from this section, regardless of position or experience level, is just because your area does not have a direct representative does not mean it is not important. Instead, consider that an appointment to an assessment committee at this level is an appointment to represent a wide campus constituency. Therefore, the three representatives from student affairs who do get appointed to the committee have a duty to represent all areas of student affairs and not just their respective office.

Expanding Your Understanding
While the steering committee may coordinate the accreditation process and the development of the self study, it is often necessary to divide out the work further. Creating subcommittees that are tasked with researching, collecting data, and developing an informed response about one or more of the accrediting agency’s standards generally accomplish this. Similar to the steering committee, the subcommittees often include representatives from various areas of the campus. These committees are often the opportunity for professionals at different levels in their career to get involved. In addition to being an opportunity to represent your office or department, these committees can be an opportunity for an individual to highlight their area of expertise and gain additional institutional knowledge about that area or it can be an opportunity to learn about an entirely new area.

I had the opportunity to work on a subcommittee that was outside of my area of knowledge shortly after starting as a graduate student. The subcommittee I was on covered two different standards that focused on planning, resources, and institutional renewal. Going into the experience during my first semester of graduate school I knew very little about these topics, and the topic of resources meant money in my mind. By the end of the semester, I felt fairly knowledgeable about university monetary resources, but also with the various other resources such as facilities and human. Specifically, with monetary resources, I gained significant knowledge about the limitations put on funding from different sources. For example, I did not realize that funding—at least for my institution—set aside for construction could only be used for that purpose and could not be used to balance out debt in other areas. During subsequent semesters of my graduate program, I was able to utilize the information from the experience to add to classroom discussions and my class assignments. Through this application of the knowledge I was also able to provide my classmates, most of whom worked in more traditional student affairs assistantships, with information about the greater operations of the university.

Institutional Culture of Assessment
In many cases, the subcommittees need to request and analyze assessment data and reports from various offices and departments in order to conduct their research into the standards. For anyone involved on these committees, this can provide a great illustration for the institution’s culture of assessment. According to Henning (2015), a culture of assessment is “a set of pervasive actions and behaviors by staff across an organization, focusing on the use of data in decision making regarding the accountability and improvement of programs and services” (pp. 11-12). Using this definition, subcommittees, which are able to readily find data, reports, and evidence of improvement based on that information, are probably at an assessment positive institution. However, the inability to find this information may be an indication that one of the institution’s weaknesses involves assessment and the emphasis that is placed upon it.

While culture of assessment can be an institutional term, it can also be used to describe divisions, departments, or units (Henning, 2015). While the previous scenario addressed an institutional level culture of assessment, my experiences in my assistantship illustrated more about the culture of assessment within individual offices and departments. Going back to one of my previous topics, politics are also very prevalent in understanding the culture of assessment. For example, no one ever wants to see their department’s issues exposed, and if those topics are brought up as part of a subcommittee’s research the conversations can get pretty heated. In these discussions, it also becomes easy to identify the units that time and time again takes hits to their resources. In many of the cases I observed, programs or offices which were targeted by resource decreases in the past were able to provide more data and evidence of the importance of their programs and how they contribute to student learning outcomes than those programs which where seldom plagued with resource decreases. Essentially, these offices’ prior experience with resource targeting resulted in them recognizing the need to provide tangible evidence of their programs’ success and importance. This in turn led to them developing stronger assessment plans for continual improvement. The establishing of the assessment cycle and use of the data for continual improvement led to a stronger culture of assessment being present within these offices.

Overall, I think the message I took home from this part of my experience was to ingrain assessment into the day-to-day operations of your job. The units I observed which developed a strong culture of assessment from their past experiences did this and as such they were able to provide information that was relevant and useable. They were not conducting assessment processes just for the sake of their annual review or the institution’s accreditation cycle. They were conducting it as a way of improving themselves and defending the outcomes their area has on students.

Role of Student Affairs Professionals
One of my overarching themes throughout this article has been assessment should not be done for the sake of accreditation. Instead, accreditation is a process by which previously gathered information is collected and reviewed in relation to the standards of the accreditor. If anything, the full scale institutional review involved in accreditation should indicate where weaknesses are present, and allow the institution to set goals for addressing those weaknesses over the next ten years.

Accreditation may seem to be too broad to impact the day-to-day operations of student affairs professionals; however, our work is directly connected to the development and learning of our students. As such, it is our responsibility to ensure we connect our work to the accreditation process and ensure our services meet the standards expected by accrediting bodies. The following are my tips for student affairs professionals with regards to accreditation:
· Get involved – Accreditation is a participatory process, but it is only participatory if people choose to get involved. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and participate in the process to show commitment to your institution and develop professionally. Getting involved does not have to be as intense as joining a committee. Simply participating in an interview or providing feedback on the self study document are less time committed processes to introduce you to accreditation.
· Ingrain assessment in your work – Accreditation relies on the knowledge and information that has been collected since the last review cycle. By building assessment into your day-to-day job duties, you not only assist in the accreditation process, but you also help improve your department by collecting data that is used to improve your programs and show the importance of your work.
· Stay informed – Even if you do not get involved in the accreditation process, at least take the time to understand your institution’s process and keep up-to-date on what is being done. Accreditation impacts every single campus constituent, and knowing what is occurring not only benefits you, but also your office and students.

Conclusion
Regional accreditation is potentially one of the most complex processes experienced by faculty, staff, and administrators at institutions of higher education. While it may only occur every ten years, the process of preparing the self study may take as much as three or four years of work. When you add in that an extensive progress report is generally due around year five and requires some preparatory time itself, it becomes apparent that the accreditation cycle never truly ends. Essentially institutions are constantly engaged in accreditation activities and by the nature of the process assessment related ventures. As student affairs professionals, it is imperative to assist institutions in this process by not only conducting assessments, but also using the data to close the loop and improve the performance and value of our areas. Our role is likely to continue to grow in this process as a result of recent calls by the federal government for accreditors to change their processes to improve institutional accountability. Many of these calls for change push for a greater emphasis on return on investment data such as job placement rates, average graduate salary, and percent of graduates pursing graduate education. Other changes already in discussion include requiring greater annual data be submitted to accreditors by institutions, and shortening the ten-year cycle. Regardless of what accreditation’s future holds, the culture of assessment inherent to the process is something to be embraced by student affairs professionals as it can lead to positive impacts for our students.

Discussion Questions
1. Where is my institution currently at in the accreditation cycle? What areas where previously selected for improved during the last review?
2. How does my involvement in the accreditation and associated assessment processes benefit the students I serve?
3. What is the culture of assessment within my office? Division? Institution?
4. How can I help build a culture of assessment within my office, division, and/or institution, and what skills or resources would I need to do this?

References

  • Council for Higher Education Accreditation (2002). The fundamentals of accreditation: What do you need to know? Retrieved from http://www.chea.org
  • Henning, G. W. (2015). Tenet two: Cultivating a culture of assessment. In K. K. Yousey-Elsener, E. M. Bentrim, & G. W. Henning (Eds.), A practical guide: Coordinating student affairs divisional assessment (pp. 11-34). Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (2015). Verification of compliance with accreditation-relevant federal regulations: Implementation for 2016. Philadelphia, PA: Author.
  • Racine, M. B. (n.d.). Writing a self study report. In Institutional development: Added value through program assessment (Sec. 1.5.1, pp. 107-110). Plainfield, IL: Pacific Crest Faculty Development Series.
  • Wood, A. L. (2006). Demystifying accreditation: Action plans for a national or regional accreditation. Innovative Higher Education, 31, 43-62.

About the Author
Keith E. Davidson Jr. is currently in his first year as an Academic Counselor at Frostburg State University. He is a May 2016 graduate from Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s (IUP) Master of Arts program in Student Affairs in Higher Education. During his time at IUP, he was the graduate assistant for the Office of the Provost’s Associate for Academic Programs and Planning and spent a considerable amount of time assisting with preparations for the institution’s spring 2016 decennial review with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. He holds a B.S. degree in chemistry from Frostburg State University.

Please e-mail inquiries to Keith E. Davidson.

Disclaimer
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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