Accreditation as Narrative

ACCREDITATION:  The first time you experience the accreditation process, it seems almost mystical.  The institution goes through an extensive period of self-examination, an accreditation review team visits the school, and the accrediting organization either approves or denies the college accredited status based on the results of those activities.  In the following article, higher education consultant, Marylin Newell explores the narrative process that undergirds the accreditation process.

 

Everything seems to hang in the balance when a college is going through the accreditation process.  Whether it is seeking initial accreditation or renewing its award through a five or ten year accreditation review, accreditation revolves around the self-study which is both process and narrative.  Consider that the narrative report that represent’s the school’s self-study process may be the more instrumental of the two components when it comes to convincing an accrediting commission of the institution’s ability to meet the standards established for approving accreditation.

Accreditation is said to be a voluntary, peer-review process; however, without accreditation (whether national, regional or programmatic) a college is not eligible for its students to receive Title IV financial aid, and its graduates may not be eligible for some professional certifications that require completion of a program of study from an accredited institution.  The question of peer-review in many cases is a loose application of the nature of peer institutions.  For example, in most commissions, two-year career colleges are members with equal status (at least from an accreditation vantage point) with four-year colleges and with those that award professional degrees beyond the baccalaureate degree.  The criteria are often the same for all institutions regardless of level of degree or the subject areas in which degrees are offered.

Given all that rests on becoming (or retaining) accredited status and the nature of the peers by which an institution  may be reviewed, how a college tells the story of its self-study is an important factor in its ability to achieve the requisite approval from the visiting team and accreditation commissioners who review the school from a distance based on their own self-study report and the corresponding report of the visiting team that reviews the college through a site visit aimed at validating that what the school has reported in its self-study report matches what an objective (albeit industry savvy) observer finds in a brief but intense site visit. The narrative (the school’s self-study report) is the thread that ties the process the school engages in when it studies its current practices as they compare to the accreditation criteria.

In very simplistic terms, the self-study process is a cycle of events all reflected in narrative form.  The accrediting commission establishes guidelines (generally called criteria or standards of accreditation) in a number of critical areas common to the operation of all institutions of higher education.  NEASC, for example has criteria that address the institution’s mission and purpose, evaluation and planning, organization and governance, the academic program, faculty, students, library and other information resources, physical and technological resources, financial resources, public disclosure and integrity.  Each category has specific standards that the college must meet in order to gain accreditation.  And so the process begins.

Ideally, through a collegiate and college-wide process of self-examination, discussion, reflective evaluation and planning for remediation, the college begins to study itself by comparing their operation to the narrative expectations of the criteria.  The language of the criteria is carefully crafted to address the nature of the vast variety of higher education institutions with their distinctly different cultures, characteristics, and missions.  It is the institution’s responsibility to be able to demonstrate compliance with each (and every) section, to identify strengths and areas of concern, and to articulate a plan of action for continuous self-improvement.  The institution’s ability to effectively capture (in narrative form) how well it meets the criteria—and how carefully it can articulate what it intends to do in areas where it believes improvement is needed without inadvertently implying that it does not meet the requirement.

The accreditation review team, the group of peers that reviews the institution’s self-study report and then conducts an intense on-site examination of the evidence compiled by the institution to document how it meets the criteria, also observes the institution in its daily operation to verify that what is reflected in the self-study report.  Interviews with members of the college community (students, faculty, administrators, and advisory and governing board members) and often members of the community are used to validate the review team’s observations.  What the team observes and its interpretation of how closely what it sees agrees with what the institution represented in its self-study report is reflected in a report of the site visit that (after it is fully compiled and edited by the visit chairperson) is shared with the college administration.  The college has an opportunity to challenge any factual statements in the review team’s report with which it disagrees, adjustments (if appropriate) are made, and the final report of the self-study review team along with the institution’s self-study report are forwarded to the accrediting organization’s commissioner for final review.  It is this compilation of documentation—which often includes the college’s publications and any correspondence between the college president and the review team chairperson.

Each commission has a slightly different process following the collection of the materials, most of which include an interview by commissioners of the college president (and any college representatives the president has included in the interview).  The question and answer format is intended to allow opportunities for commissioners to clarify their understanding of any discrepancies between the institution’s narrative and that of the review team and often includes a brief interview with the review team chairperson.  These comprise an oral narrative that serves to further reinforce the congruence (or discrepancies) in the collective written narratives.  Regardless the details of their individual processes, each commission considers the written materials and subsequent information gathered by them through the usually brief interview with the college president.  It is this collection of narratives upon which the final decision of the commission rests regarding the college’s ability to meet the standards of accreditation.

The concept of narrative can also be termed story telling.  In the accreditation process, it is important how the institution initially tells its story.  Great care must be taken to ensure the story the self-study report tells reflects the criteria in language that demonstrates its full understanding of the content and intent of the initial narrative (criteria). Adequate information needs to be provided to the review team to facilitate them telling their story in ways that are consistent with the college’s story, so the commissioners (who have likely not visited the college or seen the supporting documentation) have confidence that both the college and the review team are telling the same story.

To ensure the integrity of the self-study process (and correspondingly the accreditation process), the stories told must ring true for everyone involved.  It is the homogeny of the stories that ultimately enables the self-study committee, college community, accreditation review team, and commissioners to agree the school has met the criteria and deserves to be awarded a grant of accreditation that endorses the college as a legitimate entity in the higher education industry.

A complete list of CHEA approved accrediting organizations/commissions can be viewed at http://www.chea.org/Directories/

For more information about accreditation or to access a database of accredited institutions listed by the department of education visit the US Department of Education’s search site at http://www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/Search.asp

Marylin Newell is the founder and lead consultant for College Matters, an Executive Coaching and Consulting firm specializing in higher education. More information about College Matters and additional articles on topics of interest in higher education are available at www.collegematters.us

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