Accreditation Shifts: Higher Education & Student Affairs’ Maturing Student Success Movement | Gordon, Shefman & Heinrich

written by: Sarah R. Gordon, Pamelyn K. Shefman & Bill Heinrich

In 2018, we found most accreditors required “student affairs” or “co-curricular” data in institutional reports, therefore,  student affairs professionals needed a seat at the accreditation table. We asserted, “student affairs professionals are often already doing work that aligns with accreditation standards and criteria, but the documentation and purposeful alignment of that work to the standards may be lacking” (Gordon et al.. 2018, p. 19). Over the past year, we have been revisiting that paper, specifically because accreditation standards have changed, as have student affairs’ assessment processes and accreditation roles. What have we learned so far?

Student success has found its way into recent accreditation changes; specifically, there has been a shift toward the need for and use of outcomes. Perhaps this is mirroring higher education’s maturing student success movement (Torres & Renn, 2021). Accreditation shifts reflect many campus realities for student affairs by moving toward collaboration and away from siloed divisions of academic and student affairs (Levy et al., 2018). We explored if and how student affairs might remain embedded in the accreditation process. Given trends in the literature and changes by accreditors, we reanalyzed the accreditation standards with a renewed focus on areas impacting student affairs.

To do this, we used current and past accreditation standards posted on each accreditor’s website. We observed three types of updates: 1) none; 2) minor changes; and 3) major changes (see Table 1).  Accreditation standards shifted toward institutional responsibility for student achievement, support, and outcomes and away from prescribing programs leading to desired outcomes. The change most often seen was a new focus on achieving success (i.e. graduation outcomes) rather than emphasizing services/programs. Standards are less prescriptive about how student success is achieved (e.g., number of programs) and instead focus on outcomes (e.g., time to graduation). Institutions as a whole, including student affairs, must now ensure programs and processes are in place to lead to student achievements. Previously, standards suggested “Do A to get B” (where B is graduation/student success). Now, several standards simply read “Get To B.”

Table 1

Changes Observed in Accreditation Standards

Change Observed Institutional Accreditor(s) Example/Observation of Change

e.g., no updates made, no substantive wording changes made

ACCJC– Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges


MSCHE–Middle States Commission on Higher Education

MSCHE 4.4 (identical in 2018 and 2023) – If offered, athletic, student life, and other extracurricular activities that are regulated by the same academic, fiscal, and administrative principles and procedures that govern all other program

e.g., clarifications, format changes, but the meaning of language would not meaningfully impact student affairs

NECS–New England Commission of Higher Education

SACSCOC–Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges

HLC–Higher Learning Commission

HLC 2018

4.B.2– The institution assesses achievement of the learning outcomes that it claims for its curricular and co-curricular programs

HLC 2020

4.B.1–The institution has effective processes for assessment of student learning and for achievement of learning goals in academic and co-curricular offerings


e.g., changes made from discussing resources and programs to student outcomes reflecting a paradigm shift

NWCCU–Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

WASC–Western Association of Schools and Colleges

NWCCU 2018

2.G.1: Consistent with the nature of its educational programs and methods of delivery, the institution creates effective learning environments with appropriate programs and services to support student learning needs.

NWCCU 2020 2.G.1: Consistent with the nature of its educational programs and methods of delivery, and with a particular focus on equity and closure of equity gaps in achievement, the institution creates and maintains effective learning environments with appropriate programs and services to support student learning and success.


We are inspired to consider ways that changes might impact practice, and below provide beginning inquiry based on these shifts and implications of student affairs scholarship and practice.

How Might We Interpret These Changes From a Student Affairs Standpoint?

In 2012, Culp and Dungy argued for taking a cyclical approach to using assessment data to create and re-create cultures of evidence. The focus in student affairs then was learning outcomes and program quality. Now, changes reflect a focus on outcomes. Barr et al. (2014) offered perspectives on managing change including “foundational documents and ethics; applying theory, literature, and data to practice; managing resources; utilizing technology; advocating for students; fulfilling our responsibilities as educators; and reframing our professional practice” (p. iv). Each approach can be a single lens through which change is interpreted, however, institutional complexity challenges this approach. Bolman and Deal (2014) argued for using multiple perspectives in their concept of reframing organizations, while Allworth et al. (2021) argued for and offered tools to implement careful consideration and inclusion of students’ backgrounds and marginalized and minoritized identities for change in student affairs.  Student affairs professionals are uniquely positioned on campus to respond to complex changes with a multi-perspective, equity-centered approach.

Peter Burress (2018) described how universities anchor urban planning landscapes with a “fourth wave” (p. 24) of student development work, in which student affairs, as a less hierarchical entity on campus, builds on and combines the best of socio-cultural, diversifying, and critical and post structural development theories. This results in a possible future where student affairs is no longer bound to specific programs but focused on holistic outcomes. Might we reimagine/rearrange what it means to provide specific support, tutoring, and culturally responsive measures in appropriate spaces without segmenting or siloing? Scott Bass (2022) argued in Administratively Adrift that financial aid, academic advising, and even residential life are ideal locations for this work. Student affairs professionals need to be creative and adapt new tools and approaches to tackle a more networked environment. This can be achieved, perhaps, by borrowing technology, business processes, and human resource practices from outside higher education.

Are Accreditors Moving in the Same Direction?

With accreditation rules changing the term “regional” accreditation is no longer binding. Are accreditors’ changes in standards a reflection of institutions’ ability to “shop around”? What implications do state/regional politics or agendas (as seen in Florida and North Carolina) have on an institution’s choice of accreditor (or vice versa)? The accreditation policies are new so it is unclear how changes will affect individual campus decisions. Understanding how and in what directions accreditors are moving is important to campuses, as accreditation standards can define the work of a campus and thus student affairs. If a campus does change accreditors, it can require faculty and staff at every level to re-imagine their relationship with and expectations of students.

How are the Shifts Indicative of Future Directions? 

Student affairs is essential. At the same time, its form might change. In light of accreditation changes, practitioners might consider how to adapt existing programs and adjust to new expectations. If evidence of student success is lacking from a particular program, how might student affairs sunset some practices and in turn leave room for new practices to emerge?  In the case that existing practices constitute a baseline of support, how might we think about changes to assessment of co-curricular education or student success centers to show their value in terms of updated accreditation standards?

In order to effectively serve students, we need both a depth and breadth of knowledge . Student affairs’ focus on competencies is connected to certification for student affairs educators (NASPA, n.d.). Professional competency expectations mirror the outcomes driven approaches adopted by some accreditors. But how will certified student affairs educators lead to sufficient organizational changes to drive positive student outcomes? This leads to more questions. Can/should we change the way we think about work? How does this help or hinder appropriate distribution of work? How does this change case management? Can technology support ways we operate across our changing environments? All of these questions reflect a fundamental set of assumptions about what a campus does for students and societal expectations for what higher education provides for the larger society.

Practitioners and student affairs scholars are called to pay closer attention to the accreditation landscape and the impact on student affairs on our campuses. The inclusion of student affairs in accreditation is important. And at this time the nature of student success practices including de-siloing specializations, broader data-driven changes to practice, and increased technology support is driving different functional arrangements of student affairs. The ability for student affairs educators to be nimble with their work, applied to students’ needs, is paramount in the coming accreditation cycles. And in the end, the focus on outcomes is what is best for our students.


Allworth, J., Morrison, J., D’Souza, L., & Henning, G. W. (2021). Design thinking in student affairs: A primer. Routledge.

Barr, M. J., McClellan, G. S., & Sandeen, A. (2014). Making change happen in student affairs: Challenges and strategies. John Wiley & Sons.

Bass, S. A. (2022). Administratively adrift: Overcoming institutional barriers for college student success. Cambridge University Press.

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2014). How great leaders think: The art of reframing. John Wiley & Sons.

Burress, P. (2018). Fourth wave student development: Constructing student affairs-driven spaces that deliver knowledge and tools for effecting social change (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)., M. M., & Dungy, G. J. (Eds.). (2012). Building a culture of evidence in student affairs: A guide for leaders and practitioners. NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Gordon, S.R., Shefman, P., Heinrich, B., Gage, K. (2019). The role of student affairs in regional accreditation: Why and how to be included. Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, 5(1), 1-25. Retrieved from

NASPA, Student Affairs Educators in Higher Education (n.d.). Student Affairs Educator Certification. retrieved on August 8, 2023, from

Levy, J., Hess, R., & Thomas, A. (2018). Student affairs assessment & accreditation: History, expectations, and implications. Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, 4(1), 4284.

About the Authors

Sarah R. Gordon, Ph.D., (she/hers/her) is the Interim Dean of Research and Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Arkansas Tech University.

Pamelyn K. Shefman, Ph.D., (she/hers/her) is the Executive Director of the Office of Planning and Assessment at the University of Houston-Clear Lake.

Bill Heinrich, Ph.D., (he/him/his) is the Director of Mindset by Symplicity in Hamilton, Ontario.