Careful preparation and clear presentation are essential to a successful accreditation review. You can save yourself and your colleagues a lot of anguish by knowing what accrediting agencies expect. In an interview with Academic Leader, Linda Suskie, a former vice president at the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, offered her insights on the accreditation review process.
AL: What are some common misconceptions about the accreditation review process?
Suskie: Probably the biggest misconception I see is that the accreditation process is a pointless chore. A college that takes the accreditation process seriously emerges a stronger college, with a clearer focus.
Another misconception I often see is that accreditors are satisfied with no more than one or two examples of compliance, say the stories of two programs that have used assessment evidence to make improvements. Today accreditors need to see more pervasive, substantive evidence to back up assertions that a college makes.
Finally, some colleges think everything in an accreditation report must be positive, with no needed improvements, just staying the course. But this can actually raise a red flag with accreditors. No college is perfect; every college could use some improvements in some areas. If you’re not acknowledging that, what else might you be hiding?
AL: For those who have been through accreditation review before, are there aspects of the process that have changed? Have expectations changed?
Suskie: Accreditors have been on a pretty consistent course over the last decade, not changing their requirements dramatically but enforcing them with greater rigor. Where once a plan for assessment might suffice, today accreditors want to see implemented assessment processes, with the results used to make meaningful improvements where warranted. In short, they want to see indications of a culture of evidence-informed decision-making.
The U.S. Department of Education is requiring accreditors to verify a growing list of specific items, such as whether a college verifies that the student taking an online course is the student who registered for it.
Some accreditors now want to see evidence that colleges are meeting the public good: responding to the needs of students, employers, and society.
AL: What are some common mistakes institutions make in preparing for accreditation review?
Suskie: Probably the most common mistake I see is providing too much or too little evidence. As I’ve already noted, some colleges fill their accreditation reports with sweeping platitudes (“Our faculty are dedicated to their students.” “The campus is attractive.”) without systematic evidence to support them. At the other end of the spectrum, some colleges overload their reports with evidence: resumes of every employee, minutes of every committee meeting, results of every test, survey, and rubric from the last five years.
Both ends of the spectrum are problematic. Without systematic evidence supporting your assertions, accreditation reviewers cannot confirm that your college is in compliance with its requirements. But with too much evidence, the reviewers cannot see the forest of compliance for the trees of evidence. Remember that most accreditation reviewers are volunteers, and reviewing your college is not their day job. The vast majority of reviewers I’ve known are dedicated and work hard on their reviews, but you don’t want to annoy them by making them waste time sifting through useless information.
Another common mistake I see is thinking that if your report is just like the one you submitted five years ago or one from another college two years ago, you’ll be fine. As I’ve already noted, the rigor with which accreditors are enforcing their standards is steadily ratcheting up. A report that was accepted five years ago might not be accepted today. And another college’s report is framed in the context of that college’s mission and goals, which are not the same as yours. So what worked five years ago, or what works at another college, might not work for you today.
Yet another mistake I often see is simply not reading the directions! I’ve seen colleges talk about planning in their reports, for example, without taking the time to read the accreditor’s requirements for planning and making sure their report addresses those requirements. Read carefully both the accreditor’s requirements and any guidelines it provides on preparing and submitting a report.
AL: What types of evidence do accreditors expect?
Suskie: This can vary considerably from one accreditor to another, so it’s important to read your accreditor’s reporting guidelines carefully. But it’s safe to say that evidence should demonstrate pervasive, consistent compliance across everything your college does. As colleges are increasingly diversifying where and how they provide learning opportunities, accreditors are looking more carefully at consistency of expectations and outcomes across locations and venues. Whether students study at your main campus or across town, in a face-to-face class or online, they should get the same quality education and graduate with the same competencies, at the same level of rigor. The “drilling down” that accreditors are doing today is one reason why providing one or two examples of compliance isn’t sufficient evidence anymore.
AL: What are some tips for presenting evidence to accreditors?
Suskie: If you have latitude in how you organize your report, do so assiduously. This is harder than it seems, because colleges are complicated, with a lot of overlapping activities, and accreditation standards also overlap. Use plenty of headings, subheadings, cross-references, and hyperlinks to supporting evidence in order to help the reviewers easily find what they’re looking for.
Then present your report in ways that help the reviewers quickly grasp its main points. Tables or bulleted lists are often more quickly understood than narrative text, and graphs are often more quickly understood than tables. Watch out for jargon, including everyday words that have a special meaning at your college.
Because regional accreditors determine compliance within the context of your college’s mission and goals, consider organizing your report accordingly. Instead of a report section listing your goals and subsequent sections each summarizing the results of a survey, test, and so on, try organizing your report by your college’s strategic goals and learning outcomes. Then bring together and integrate into one section what you’ve learned about, say, students’ communication skills from surveys, rubrics, tests, and so on. In another section, discuss students’ critical thinking skills the same way. This will help the accreditor answer its fundamental questions: What are your key goals for your college and your students? Are you achieving those goals? If not, what are you doing about it?
Finally, have an editor read through your draft report for consistency as well as clarity. You don’t want the report to provide one set of enrollment figures in the first section and a different set in the third!
On September 17 Linda Suskie will lead the Magna Online Seminar “Six Steps for Preparing for Accreditation Review.” For information, see www.magnapubs.com/catalog/six-steps-to-preparing-for-accreditation-review/.