Institutional accreditation is a quality assurance process that provides colleges and universities access to critical resources once attained: federal financial aid, the ability to transfer and accept student transcripts and credits, and the increased likelihood of degree acceptance from employers and other higher ed institutions.
Understandably, most colleges and universities seek accreditation to obtain funds from the Department of Education to provide Title IV federal financial aid funding such as Pell Grants, etc. In this case, the Department serves as a bank and delegates its authority to accreditors to confirm if institutions meet the quality, organization, and financial standards to receive federal financial aid.
Since the Negotiated Rulemaking of 2019, accreditation bodies now consist of institutional accreditors and programmatic accreditors; the Neg Reg removed the distinction between the former regional and national accreditors.
This article breaks down the mystique of navigating the pathways of initial accreditation, reaffirmation, and getting off sanctions with institutional accreditors.
Accreditation Bodies are Regulated Membership Organizations
The first thing to remember about accreditation is that accreditors are membership organizations. Accreditation is not mandatory – higher ed institutions need not be accredited. But as gatekeepers for $112 billion in federal financial aid, an institution must be accredited if it wants to participate in federal financial aid (including tuition assistance for the military).
Second, to be an accreditor, you must be approved by the Department every five years. NASIQI, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, “provides recommendations regarding accrediting agencies that monitor the academic quality of postsecondary institutions and educational programs for federal purposes.” Thus, all accrediting agencies, i.e., what were formerly known as “regional accreditors” and “national accreditors” and are now known as “institutional accreditors,” are approved by the Department of Education.
Lastly, all institutional (and programmatic) accreditors have standards. Although each accreditor has different standards, they mainly focus on the same things. Below is a list of some accreditation standards from a few prominent accreditors.
Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) has four standards:
- Standard One: Defining institutional mission and acting with integrity
- Standard Two: Achieving educational objectives and student success
- Standard Three: Assuring resources and organization structures
- Standard Four: Creating an institution committed to quality assurance and improvement
The Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) has two standards:
- Standard One – Student Success, and Institutional Mission and Effectiveness
- Standard Two – Governance, Resources, and Capacity
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) has seven standards:
- Standard I – Mission and Goals
- Standard II – Ethics and Integrity
- Standard III – Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience
- Standard IV – Support of the Student Experience
- Standard V – Educational Effectiveness Assessment
- Standard VI – Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement
- Standard VII – Governance, Leadership, and Administration
There are a number of other accrediting organizations that accredit institutions of higher education, e.g., the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), and others, but those recognized accrediting agencies’ standards are based on standards that are recognized as important by the Department.
Each Accreditor’s Criteria or “Sub-standards” for Compliance
Each accreditor’s standards are broken down into “sub-standards”: WSCUC calls them CFRs (criteria for review), NWCUC calls them Elements, and MSCHE calls them Criteria. These sub-standards spell out the criteria required for being in compliance with the standard.
I. Initial Accreditation
Accrediting organizations view institutional accreditation as a holistic peer review process requiring a team effort to compile a written report documenting how the institution meets the accreditor’s standards. Most, if not all, accreditors view accreditation as a “team sport,” i.e., a group of employees and faculty who come together to compile the report and documentation that the institution meets the accreditation standards. Therefore, colleges and universities are highly encouraged to create a team across the institution to develop the self-study.
The basic blueprint for an institution receiving its initial accreditation follows the following five steps:
Step One: Membership
Each accrediting body has its membership application with multiple questions that must be answered and criteria to be addressed and met. These questions cover everything from the history and mission of the institution, number and types of programs, quality assurance procedures, leadership, and other critical things. Typically, the application has between 12 – 25 questions to be answered.
Once the application is accepted, your institution becomes eligible to begin the accreditation process.
Step Two: Eligibility
Once an institution is granted Eligibility, accreditors generally assign a VP liaison from their staff to work with the institution. This person is the institution’s primary point of contact, whose job it is to provide information about the standards and process. S/he will meet with institution leadership two to three times before applying for Candidacy, the next step in the accreditation process. They will interpret the standards, suggest how to meet them, and ascertain the institution’s readiness.
When an institution (with the concurrence of the VP Liaison) feels it is ready to begin applying for its initial accreditation, the institution’s Accreditation Liaison Officer (ALO) begins developing the self-study for submission to the accreditor.
Step Three: Candidacy
Generally, the next step in the accreditation process is Candidacy, which must be completed within five years of being granted Eligibility. Institutions are required to:
- Submit a “self-study,” a 50-100+ page report that details (with evidence) how the institution is meeting the accreditor’s standards and criteria.
- Undergo a visiting team visit to validate the self-study.
- Meet with the Commission to discuss the self-study and visiting team report.
Self-Study. The self-study documents how the institution meets the accrediting body’s standards and sub-standards (with evidence in the form of exhibits). For example, proof of student learning outcome compliance requires the inclusion of program assessments and program review manuals, as well as completed program assessment and program review reports.
The self-study must be submitted two months before the visiting team visit. The most significant mistake institutions make is to not begin work on the self-study at least a year before the self-study is due.
Visiting Team Visit. Two months after submission of the self-study, most accrediting bodies will send a visiting team to the institution to validate the self-study. This visiting team is comprised of members of peer institutions within the institution’s region. This process consists of a 2-3 day visit in which multiple meetings happen between the team and the institution’s faculty, staff, and students.
Generally, these meetings have been face-to-face on campus, but during COVID, accreditors began doing visiting team visits virtually using Zoom or another online meeting platform.
During the first Visiting Team visit, the team will assess compliance with all standards and substandards. WSCUC calls this the Seeking Accreditation Visit 1 (SAV-1). Some accreditors (e.g., WSCUC) will only come to check on the standards not demonstrated to have been met during the SAV-1 visit.
Accreditors generally allow certain criteria to be fully or partially met to be awarded Candidacy, but all standards must be met to receive initial accreditation. Having said that, there are some substandards that institutions will always need to be fully compliant with, e.g., board independence, qualified faculty teaching courses, etc.
Whenever an institution doesn’t effectively demonstrate it meets any standards during SAV-1, for example, the accreditor will return for a second visit, which is referred to as SAV-2.
Meeting with the Commission. The Visiting Team does not decide if the institution receives Candidacy or not – this is the responsibility of the accreditation commission. The commission, which will have already read the self-study report, will meet with institution leaders after the one or multiple SAVs for 20 to 30 minutes.
During that time, they will review the Visiting Team’s commendations and recommendations on what still needs attention. Then, the commission will make its determination, and the institution will receive a letter 2-4 weeks after the meeting informing it of its status.
There are generally three outcomes from the initial application for candidacy:
- Remain at Eligibility. This is for institutions that are not in compliance with the majority of standards and substandards.
- This is for institutions that are found to be in compliance with the majority of standards and substandards but do not meet the “fully compliant” criteria for all standards.
- Accreditors treat this differently. Some require a full visit, others just a visit for those areas not found to be in compliance.
- Initial Accreditation. This is for institutions that are found to be in compliance with all the standards. This does not mean you have to be in full compliance with all the substandards (criteria), but the institution must demonstrate compliance with the majority of the criteria making up that standard.
Generally, an institution can remain in Candidacy status for up to five years.
Step Four: Initial Accreditation
This is where the accreditors’ processes begin to differ. Some accreditors, e.g., WSCUC, will allow institutions to “fast-track” the accreditation process. This means that when an institution submits its initial self-study and has the visiting team visit the institution during an SAV-1, it can have one of the three above outcomes, including awarding its initial accreditation.
However, should the institution not be in full compliance with all the standards, the self-study and second visit (SAV-2) will address only those standards and substandards that the commission found to be not fully compliant.
However, other accrediting bodies, e.g., MSCHE, require the institution to be awarded Candidacy and then, approximately two years later, go through another full accreditation visit for initial accreditation.
Regardless, the process and standards required to be met for Candidacy and Initial Accreditation generally are the same.
Once accredited, accreditation generally lasts for six years, after which time institutions must participate in the reaffirmation process.
Step Five: Annual reports, a mid-cycle review, and possible special visits
Over the next six years, the accredited institution will submit an annual report that isn’t as in-depth as the normal self-study – this is mainly to keep the accreditor informed of the institution’s status in multiple areas.
A mid-cycle review generally is required at the halfway point before accreditation expires (i.e., three years into a six-year accreditation cycle). It will entail the submission of another self-study but may or may not require a visiting team visit to maintain accreditation.
Sometimes, the institution must have a “special visit.” This generally occurs within two years of receiving the initial accreditation (or reaffirmation) when the accrediting commission has concerns about an institution being or staying fully compliant with a standard or substandard. Special Visits may require just a report or a visiting team to visit the institution, but the foci will be only on those areas that need additional attention.
The reaffirmation process is nearly identical to that of the initial accreditation process.
A year before accreditation expires, the institution’s ALO will once again pull the band together to update the self-study and prepare for the reaffirmation Visiting Team visit. Like the initial accreditation process, the self-study must be submitted two months before the accreditation visit. The visiting team will visit the institution, make their report to the commission, and the institution will meet with the commission prior to it issuing its report reaffirming the accreditation.
Upon getting reaccredited, the second accreditation cycle usually lasts longer than six years. Some accreditors allow eight or even ten years, though most accrediting bodies are reducing this period to increase oversight to justify their oversight and actions to NACIQI.
Sanctions occur when an institution falls out of compliance with one of its standards. The sanction levels are uniform across accrediting bodies; they are warning, probation, and show cause.
Warnings are provided when an institution is in violation of a standard but hasn’t crossed a line. Probation is more severe; the accrediting body is essentially saying that the institution is in violation of standards or substandards, and they are watching the institution closely. Finally, show cause is the most egregious of the sanctions – the accrediting body has determined that the institution is in gross violation of standards. Essentially, the accreditor is saying, “You need to show us why we should not pull your accreditation.”
Accreditors can also pull an institution’s accreditation without sanctions, but generally, they put an institution on show cause before doing this. This gives the institution a short window to remedy what is out of compliance.
Show cause is essentially the kiss of death for an institution – nine out of 10 institutions that receive show cause rarely survive. It is reserved for institutions that are grossly violating standards, e.g., Northern Idaho College, whose board was hijacked by ultraconservatives and fired the president without due cause and violating their own policies, or Trident University International which was graduating students without having fulfilled their GE requirements.
Usually, that would have resulted in the institution being put on probation, but because they tried to cover it up and not inform WSCUC, they were put on show cause (and the president was fired as a result).
If an institution is put on sanction, a special visit usually occurs within two years after warnings and probations have been enacted. The institution must prove that the concern has been addressed during this time. Show cause generally is followed by a visit no more than one year later.
In all three cases, institutional leaders get “called into the principal’s office,” i.e., they are required to meet with the accreditation body president and their VP liaison, among others, to ensure the college or university is fully aware of the situation, how to correct the issue(s), and the timeline they have to prove the problem(s) has been remedied.
Using Higher Education Accreditation Consulting Services
Although institution leaders generally assign someone as the ALO, institutions face challenges in interpreting each accreditor’s standards. Accreditors generally assign a VP Liaison who can assist in interpretation, but the work falls on the college or university to complete initial accreditation, reaffirmation, and sanctions should they occur.
Most institutions don’t have enough resources or staff to be spared or devoted to undergoing the accreditation process and gaining their initial accreditation. Since accreditation can only be achieved by looking at the entire institution holistically, higher ed leaders should consider receiving accreditation consulting from a firm or agency with a broad and deep understanding of how institutions operate, what the accreditation standards are, and how they can best be applied to your institution.
The Change Leader is an institutional accreditation consultant whose members have served on accreditation teams with multiple accreditors, have been on the receiving end of accreditation visits, and have assisted numerous institutions through all three stages of institutional accreditation.
For initial accreditation and sometimes reaffirmation, should the institution desire, The Change Leader can:
- Help write the application for membership.
- Assess where the institution is in relation to the accrediting body’s standards.
- Put in place the processes and policies in which the institution is not in full compliance with standards and substandards.
- Advise and edit the institutional self-study for Candidacy and Initial Accreditation (i.e., this is usually a yearlong process that The Change Leader has completed in two months).
- Perform mock interviews to help clients prepare for the many upcoming meetings.
- Prepare the institution leaders for meetings with the accrediting commission.
The Change Leader specializes in helping institutions get off sanctions. Should an institution find itself receiving a warning, on probation, or a show cause order, The Change Leader will:
- Prepare the institution and attend accreditation meetings when an institution has been put on sanctions, coaching the institution on meeting with the commission and accreditation staff
- Help institutions focus on what needs to be remedied to get back into compliance with the standards
- Assist with and edit the self-study
- Prepare institutions for the Visiting Team visit
The Change Leader once consulted an institution that WSCUC put on probation two times in a row for operational integrity, culture, leadership, and board independence. We got the institution off probation in 18 months – six months earlier than WSCUC said it needed.
The Change Leader has also worked with an institution that WSCUC put on show cause for graduating students who didn’t have their general education requirements and for failing to report this to their accrediting body. WSCUC gave the institution six months to remedy the problems, one of which involved firing the president who made the decisions.