Accreditation All the Time

Ann M. Pearson

Just as filing, dishes, and laundry can pile up and become dreaded tasks of epic proportion, the recordkeeping, assessment, and reporting elements associated with the traditional college reaffirmation cycle can cause a sense of panic in even the most seasoned higher education veterans.

Reaffirmation to maintain accredited status typically comes around every ten years. Regional accreditation agencies (ours is called the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges or SACSCOC, but there are others across the country) are tasked to liaison between educational institutions and the United States Department of Education (USDOE). The accrediting bodies set up reporting expectations—everything from how faculty assess success in specific courses to institutional fiscal stability. Colleges report to the accreditors on how they comply with these requirements, standards, and rules providing evidentiary documents and then the agency is able to report to the USDOE that the accredited institution does indeed do what it says it does and is a student-centric learning institution. It’s a big deal, and reaffirmation is certainly not an automatic rubber stamp.

The unfortunate pattern for preparing the rather complex reaffirmation report in many colleges is to work feverishly for a short time to gather documents, write explanatory narratives, and ensure all the programs are in compliance. When institutions receive reaffirmation, they celebrate…and then go back to the pre-reaffirmation calm—until about two years before the next ten-year report. So for years one through eight, laundry-esque piles stack up, then for two years, the unenviable accreditation team panics and calls in a lot of favors. OK—that’s a little exaggerated. The accreditation agencies do ask for midpoint reports and annual updates—but the reporting requirements for these interim stages pale in comparison to the enormous ten-year report. Of course, the professionals who attend to keeping a college’s certification process in good standing do keep up with what needs to be done. But as an institution, wouldn’t it be better for everyone at the college to do accreditation all the time? That’s our working goal at San Jacinto College. Faculty, staff, and administrators always work on course-level student learning outcomes, programmatic goals, and strategic planning measures to ensure that everything we do revolves around our students’ success. And since we do this critical work constantly, we need to record our efforts in an efficient, ongoing manner.

The Assistant Provost and Chief Assessment Officer, Dr. Jane Marie Souza, at the University of Rochester in New York has a brilliant model in place that allows any staff member at Rochester to upload documents, webpages, or reports to a virtual filing cabinet all through the year. She shared this model at the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education (AALHE) 2016 Conference and again via AALHE webinars. Using this strategy, the accreditation team monitors the contributions and sorts them into whatever category the documents will eventually support in the reaffirmation report. No one has to remember the exact wording of a new program’s student learning outcomes or undertake a Herculean email search to find the charter for a task force because it was systematically filed in the ongoing online accreditation document repository. That’s an idea worth emulating.

Difficult, time-consuming yet critical projects (think preparing your taxes) can only benefit from consistent and constant attention. We truthfully remind our students that consistent study over a sustained period of time is far more effective than cramming before an exam. Premier athletes, professional musicians, and our dental hygienists all recognize the rewards exposed by routines. Accreditation in higher ed should begin to drill, study, and floss daily.

Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on April 19, 2017.