Our institution is presently finishing the assurance argument portfolio for our accrediting body. They will in turn visit our campus to affirm the report early next year. We have involved a large number of employees in providing examples of how our institution meets the accreditation criteria. Through compiling examples and writing assurance statements clarity came.
Accreditation has been a part of higher education for much longer than I have been working in the sector. Over the past decade the nature of accreditation has changed as people have clamored for more accountability from institutions of higher education. Elected officials, the general public, current and former students have questioned practices of higher education institutions. The news is replete with headlines about higher education; headlines that are not necessarily positive. Further, high stakes college sports have added their own negative headlines to the growing cacophony of concerns.
I frequently talk to the team of administrative leaders at my college about doing the right thing, for the right reason, the right way at the right time. We debate and challenge each other when problems arrive as we work to find solutions – solutions that are best for students and the institution. We have all witnessed times when colleagues at other institutions try to game the system. For example, in a previous state with performance funding that only funded students by course if the student passed the course, a chief academic officer said, “I told my faculty to only give Ds, after all we are only getting paid for the work we did.” I was stunned. Another institution created a certificate program in “Folk Art” and drove up the number certificate awards in one year, receiving a larger portion of state allocation because of their improvement in award production. I concede that award production did indeed improve. However, I had to ask myself, “a certificate to what end?” Folk Art was certainly important to their region and even the people who earned the certificate after studying courses in the certificate. However, many of us had to ask whether or not creating more and more certificates in order to get a higher share of state funding added value or served the business community that we purported to serve.
Enter peer review through accreditation and back to my moment of clarity. As I review the assurance arguments and evidence my institution is compiling for submission, it became clearly to me where we are strong and where we have opportunities to better serve our students, community and stakeholders. The process of accreditation brings light upon activities at the institution. Peer reviewers who read our accreditation documents and visit campus to affirm our evidence write publically available reports that make visible to all who want to see, how an institution is performing.
So what, you ask? Can’t institutions ignore these recommendations and continue to do the same old thing? Actually, the answer is both yes and no. They can ignore the recommendations for a period of time before the accrediting body finally denies accreditation. The lack of accreditation results in consequences that for all practical purposes prevent the institution to continue to operate. The consequences include the loss of the ability to provide federal financial aid to students. It is very hard to attract students without the ability to provide federal financial aid. Certainly, it is not impossible, after all Hillsdale College in Michigan chooses not to offer federal financial aid or accept federal assistance. But this business model was a commitment early on in the institution’s history and would be difficult to adopt on the fly.
Still, I believe that leaders at the top of the organization must also bring about accountability. They should not wait until an accreditation process forces them to “do the right thing”. In my opinion accreditation does add value far beyond allowing our institution to offer financial aid, but I also believe leaders need to be committed to doing the right thing. Now – lets debate “the right thing”.