Regional accreditation matters a great deal to us within the higher education sector but is little known or understood outside of the quad. Within academia, most faculty members approach the self-study and accreditation process with scant enthusiasm. It is work, plain and simple, often above and beyond current tasks. The stronger, more elite institutions view it as a less important exercise; weaker, less successful institutions treat accreditation with ever greater attention and anxiety.
Trying to talk with a non-academician about accreditation is a challenging task; the language, expectations and very principles are local to higher education. There is external appreciation, to be sure, but it often pops up in unexpected ways. The informed populace assumes accreditation as a sine qua non of an institution of higher education. After all, regional accreditation is necessary to participate in Title IV financial aid. In my experience, those that are less familiar with higher education are even less familiar with the accreditation process or its value. Across the board, there is precious little understanding of what the process is or how it works.
Why is this? To start, even thought I have spent most of my life in or around higher education I have yet to come across a simple account of what accreditation is or why it matters. As citizens we expect that important activities are professionally regulated, through professional associations and the law. That connection and expectation is much less explicit in higher education. Fly by night diploma mills may get shuttered, but these situations, happily, are few and far between.
How does accreditation work? The Department of Education recognizes regional accrediting agencies, which in turn are responsible for accrediting institutions within their region. For most institutions, that entails an institution-wide self-study that is written every ten years, submitted to the agency and then distributed to a team of examiners, who are drawn from similar institutions. The self-study is not an unstructured document but instead is written in a prescribed format and manner to address certain issues or standards. The visiting team studies the report, spends a few days on campus, asks questions and reviews data, and then makes a recommendation to the agency. Accreditation does not result in grade or ranking; instead it insures continued membership in the agency as an accredited institution for a certain period of time. Within NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges), accreditation has two goals: assurance of quality and a process for institutional improvement.
For an institution, the writing of a self-study is a multi-year effort. It involves administrators, faculty, staff, students and board members. Data is collected, reviewed, assessed and studied. Drafts are circulated, revised, edited, and recirculated. The visit can be a high-stakes affair, too, as the different members of the institution see and try to use the process for different ends. It is no small endeavor and has to involve representation from all institutional stakeholders.
We are left with, then, a very heavy institutional effort that takes place across higher education that is neither fully understood nor appreciated by the public at large. This is neither to higher education’s advantage nor to the public’s benefit. To maximize its effectiveness, accreditation should be critical in securing the public’s trust. And job one of that responsibility should be making sure that the American public know what it is and why.