Finding Joy in Accreditation as a Student Affairs Professional

Accreditation gets a bad reputation.

I should know about bad reputations, as I’ve spent most of my career working in assessment — an area many professionals actively try to avoid calling by name. People often see accreditation as this scary, externally imposed process where an institution is required to make themselves look perfect, do everything excellently, and comply with whatever is asked of them, even if it doesn’t serve the needs of the institution.

Accreditation is widely understood as important. People know they must do whatever is necessary to be in compliance, otherwise, they risk losing financial aid, academic credits transferring to other institutions, and/or the ability to operate in certain locations or through different modalities.

Given the associated power here, there can be major downsides to misunderstanding accreditation.

First, people can use accreditation as an excuse to get attention or attempt to bring about change. Be careful with inappropriate usage, as you can create a boy-who-cried-wolf situation.

Second, people may incorrectly believe their work has to mirror or adhere to external, unfamiliar, unrelated standards. If that were true, I would also not be the biggest fan.

Third, people may believe accreditation occurs in single, time-bound events — such as a report or a visit — as opposed to an ongoing mindset or process that reinforces activity.

I’m here to help set the record straight. My hope in doing so is, partially, to clear the name of accreditation and make it not seem so authoritarian and absolute in prescriptive practice. And more importantly, I want to make people aware of the benefits of accreditation and the ways in which it can improve and inform their work.

Which Accreditation?

For purposes of this blog, I’ll be writing specifically about regional accreditation.

Regional accreditation is important for two reasons. First, it is a main factor in determining whether or not academic credit can transfer or be accepted by other colleges or universities. Second, an institution is only eligible to receive federal financial aid if it’s regionally accredited. In other words, regional accreditation is essential to remain in business.

Combatting a Compliance Mindset

Too often, people approach accreditation as an exercise in compliance. This can carry negative connotations of an external entity dictating operations. Instead of aiming for excellence or improvement, people might aim to just provide what’s asked of them.

Accreditation can be seen a something done to an institution, as opposed to something to participate in. Accreditation can also be viewed as something to be endured every five or 10 years. In these cases and more, people aren’t recognizing the beneficial byproducts or opportunities for improvement when engaging and reflecting on accreditation criteria.

Accreditation is an excellent excuse for an institution and individual areas to engage in intentional review and reflection of operations.

Accreditation necessitates institutions to be able to answer, with evidence, questions like the following:

  • How do our actions align with our mission, vision, and values?
  • Does our resource allocation reflect our true priorities?
  • How well are we ensuring quality in the services and curriculum we provide to students?
  • What examples do we have of data-informed changes made with student’s best interests in mind?

What many people don’t recognize is that the majority of this work should be taken care of by regular operations. In other words, institutional efforts for improvement not only advance practice but also satisfy accreditation needs. If an institution hires qualified people, people do their jobs as they should, and if there is evidence of internal quality assurance systems in place, accreditation needs are mostly addressed.

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There is a small percentage of information or evidence which may specifically be requested or needed to be represented in a certain way. Again, however, it still should be representative of the activities and practices an institution is doing anyway — which makes requests for information and writing reports a lot less stressful.

The real problem institutions face is not the accreditor; it’s that people aren’t all doing their jobs as they should. Or, people may not always follow established processes or protocols. Additionally, people may be putting strategy or goals in place that are not informed by or meeting the needs of their various stakeholders — students included. And though people may be data-informed in decision making, they may not be documenting the data utilized or tracking actions taken for improvement.

Lack of documentation makes writing a narrative or providing evidence for institutional activity very difficult. When accreditation staff call for evidence, the rest of the institution scrambles and strains to document years’ worth of activity. Anyone would be stressed out in that scenario!

All of these issues can be avoided, however.

Leveraging Accreditation

Instead of viewing accreditation as a single event or an externally imposed, irrelevant activity, institutions could view it as a periodic opportunity to tell stakeholders about the great work they are doing. It can exemplify why and how practices are structured, how decisions are made, efforts for growth and improvement, and how institutions keep students’ and other stakeholders’ needs in mind throughout.

If we recognize accreditation as this opportunity, we can work to make sure regular activity will best support and provide evidence for what’s needed when accreditation reports are due.

If that sounds easy enough and you’d like to reduce the stress and anxiety around accreditation efforts, here are some tips to employ.

Each of these can be done at the office or departmental level and do not require full institutional cooperation. As such, you can look to make sure that you’re doing what’s necessary to set yourself up for future success. And if it goes well, you can share your approach in hopes that other areas might adopt similar practices.

How to Love Accreditation

1. Understand your relationship with accreditation.

Take time to look into who your regional accreditor is, when the last visit was and what the outcome was, as well as when the next visit and/or report will be due. Talk to your accreditation folks on campus or search your website for accreditation information and past reports (more on this later).

2. Align accreditation with your activity.

Perhaps you have your own standards, criteria, or guiding principles for practice that are internally or externally influenced. Seeing how accreditation aligns with those elements can help you not only further understand accreditation’s relationship to your area, but also make it easier for you to speak to how you are meeting accreditation criteria or standards.

3. Utilize accreditation activity for reflection.

Accreditation reports and visits pose questions, capture the narrative, and collect evidence of institutions meeting requisite standards. This affords a great opportunity for reflection. Are you living up to your own values, standards, and goals? How are you meeting the needs of internal and external stakeholders for your area? In what ways can you take action for improvement here?

If you already conduct such an area reflection or review, look to make sure your parameters include alignment to accreditation standards. If you don’t already do this, allow the accreditation report or visit prep to be your inspiration, and perhaps annually plan to do it moving forward.

4. Read your institutional reports.

An awesome perk to being an accreditation professional is that, by nature of completing reports and coordinating site visits, you obtain a comprehensive, working understanding of all aspects of the institution.

This benefit can be extended to anyone willing to engage in the accreditation process, however. Too many higher education professionals are unaware of relevant activity going on with other teams within their own division, let alone other areas across the institution. Reading accreditation reports can make you aware of related operations or activities on campus that might have personal or professional interests for you.

And while the reports can be long or stuffy, you can be intentional in your reading. Identify the criteria or standards that are most relevant or interesting to you and read those sections.

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If you couldn’t already tell, I’m a big fan of accreditation. It has some very clear requirements, standards, and guidelines to follow in terms of institutional operations — which can be helpful.

However, it’s not always black and white; there is nuance and opportunity to make content applicable to best serve institution and stakeholder needs. It then becomes interesting to innovate and advance practices while still meeting criteria or standards as past practice. In other words, you’re challenged to see how you can be more effective and efficient while meeting internal and external needs.

Have I given you something new to think about with respect to accreditation? Might you approach your work a bit differently knowing more about accreditation? I hope so.

The tips above are just a few of the ways you can best leverage accreditation for your own benefit.

How have you learned to embrace accreditation as a friend, rather than seeing it as a foe? Tweet us @themoderncampus and @JoeBooksLevy.

Joe Levy

About the author: Joe Levy (he/him) is the Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation at National Louis University. Joe is passionate about data-informed decision making, accountability and promoting a student-centered approach inside and outside of the classroom. Learn how we can help get your students involved.