Challenges in Higher Education: The Case for Accreditation

Challenges in Higher Education: The Case for Accreditation

In the United States, we invest significant financial resources in colleges and universities. Students, families, policymakers, and employers want assurance that colleges and universities deliver a return on investment. Accreditation provides confirmation that accredited institutions have high quality degree programs, meet standards for higher education, are fiscally responsible, and continuously improve and innovate to provide the best educational experience for students. The accreditation process has a long history, dating back to the 1880s. It is designed as a non-governmental, peer evaluation process to assure quality and spur improvement. Under the Higher Education Act of 1965, accreditation by a recognized accreditor is one of the criteria a school must meet in order to award federal student aid. Therefore, the United States Department of Education approves accreditors that meet regulatory criteria. Each accreditor must develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations. Accreditors are private, nonprofit, and comprised of colleges and universities. Their primary goals are to assess the quality of academic programs, create a culture of continuous improvement to raise standards, establish criteria for professional certification and licensure, and serve as advocates for higher education in national policy. Institutions of higher education in the United States generally operate with considerable autonomy, but accreditation provides valuable oversight in the administration of student financial aid programs and fiscal integrity. 

Thomas More University is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the regional accreditor of degree-granting higher education institutions in the southern states. The mission of SACSCOC is to “assure the educational quality and improve the effectiveness of its member institutions.” To accomplish this mission, each school must comply with 75 standards, referred to as the Principles of Accreditation. Every 10 years, each school must demonstrate its compliance through the reaffirmation process. Thomas More University is currently undergoing this process for 2020 reaffirmation. 

First, we must complete a Compliance Certification report to address each of the 75 standards. These standards assess our mission, strategic plan, governing board, administration, faculty, student achievement, educational programs, educational policies and practices, library and learning/information resources, academic and student support services, financial stability, physical resources, and transparency in institutional representation. Second, we must develop a Quality Enhancement Plan, a unique component of SACSCOC accreditation. The Quality Enhancement Plan addresses a significant issue related to improving student learning. Our first successful Quality Enhancement Plan for our 2010 reaffirmation focused on critical thinking. We are currently working to develop a plan related to advising that will be implemented from 2020 through 2025. Third, we will host an onsite visit team of trained faculty and administrators from peer institutions. This team will examine data and conduct interviews to evaluate the Quality Enhancement Plan proposal and determine our compliance with the Principles of Accreditation. Their report offers advice for us to improve, identifies any findings, and summarizes our compliance. Lastly, we will review and respond to the onsite committee report. The onsite committee report and our response are used by SACSCOC to reaffirm accreditation. 

The reaffirmation process is typically three years. During the period between the formal reaffirmation cycles, we must complete several reports. The fifth year report addresses a limited number of standards and summarizes our completion of the Quality Enhancement Plan. Annual reports include financial information and student achievement measures. We must also submit new academic programs and other substantive changes to SACSCOC for approval. While these processes require time and resources, it is extremely important and beneficial. The Principles of Accreditation and peer review nature of the process provide us with quality standards, best practice, and maintains our focus on our mission and our students. While we discuss our efforts among faculty, staff, and administrators, we inevitably become more self-aware and find ways we can improve and innovate, which ultimately drives student success. In addition, the onsite review, and other opportunities provided by SACSCOC, promote collaboration among higher education institutions. This allows each college or university to remain autonomous while ensuring integrity and transparency. 

Accreditation also acts as a measure for public accountability. Certain metrics are available to the public for all institutions through the National Center for Education Statistics, such as graduation rates, student expenses, enrollment information, student demographics, and campus safety. However, accreditation is a more intensive process to review all aspects of the institution. erefore, maintaining regional accreditation is an indicator of a successful university. It indicates to students and families that we provide a quality education and support for student success. Employers can trust the quality of our degrees and see value in providing tuition assistance for employees. Policymakers are assured we are scally responsible and provide a return on investment. Other colleges and universities have a rmation that our credits qualify for transfer or admission to graduate schools. Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education considers us quali ed for state licensing and state nancial aid. e federal government allows us to disperse federal funds and student nancial aid. And, we are more focused on student success in and outside of the classroom to develop each student’s character, their career, and improve their community, which is the ultimate goal of higher education.