Taking the Mystery Out of Accreditation
Taking the Mystery Out of Accreditation
Guest column by Cindy Carter, Ph.D., associate provost for institutional effectiveness and degree completion
Accreditation—a word we hear a lot and a process that we know is very important to Fresno Pacific University, even if we’re not all sure exactly what it entails. This Q&A is designed to demystify this crucial procedure.
- What are the benefits of accreditation by WASC’s Senior College and University Commission (especially for students)? At the most basic level, WASC accreditation allows FPU students to obtain federally insured student loans. The U.S. Department of Education entrusted regional accreditors like WASC with the responsibility of determining whether each institution receiving federal loan approval is solvent and effective in delivering education that contributes to students’ career goals. Because accreditation ensures an institution’s fiscal health, it provides students and their families with confidence about that institution’s future. An accredited institution, in other words, is trustworthy.
At a deeper level, an institution committed to the levels of self-reflection required by accreditation necessarily engages in and models the kind of critical thinking we teach students. Critical thinking is one of the greatest skills gained through a college degree. Accreditation means that we walk our talk.
- How can we maintain our integrity and serve our mission if we are bowing to regulatory guidelines? Ironically, accreditation requires that we do just that—maintain our integrity and serve our mission. In its very first Standard and Criteria for Review, WASC charges each institution with integrating mission into all decisions, materials, assessment processes and analyses. Each institution must show how it reflects its purpose in all areas of service.
- What is WASC looking for? Accreditation is like a clean bill of health. WASC wants to know if FPU is healthy enough at every level to provide quality student learning. Do we deliver what we say we’ll deliver? Have we the resources to survive? Is the education students receive of high enough quality that they will thrive in their chosen careers? Do we demonstrate caring behaviors for everyone associated with the institution? Do we approach problems as they arise, always maintaining continuous improvement as our goal?
- How does accreditation measure educational quality? WASC wants FPU to determine how best to measure educational quality. We are encouraged to consult with sister institutions for their best practices, too. Ultimately, however, we must defend our own choices, and may develop innovative practices, as we have done in the past. Among the many measurement tools are direct evidence (student learning outcomes, retention rates, student portfolios and capstone projects) and indirect evidence (surveys, focus groups, journal reflections, course evaluations, instructional hours and grades).
- Why is the process so long? The process is really unending! It’s the never-ending-story! When we are “doing accreditation” correctly, we are immersed in a culture of self-assessment, which means that we are always interested in details about how well we are serving our students, our communities and each other.
- Why is it important to plan early and keep planning throughout the process? Since accreditation’s goal is to establish a “culture of assessment” or self-reflection, only when we integrate assessment into all of our practices can we measure how effectively we’ve created this culture. The accreditation process actually generates a culture of assessment by walking institutions step-by-step through detailed, data-informed analyses. Some of the essential details required for self-assessment, like student learning outcomes, require complex data collection systems, like TaskStream. It takes time to research, implement and maintain these systems before we can use the data to monitor and modify our practices in the service of student learning.
- What does FPU’s current accreditation timeline look like and how are we preparing? When it comes to deadlines in preparation for a site visit, things won’t really start warming up at FPU until fall 2017, when Inquiry Circles reconvene to serve an upcoming “Special Visit.” Inquiry Circles are small groups of administrators, faculty, staff and students who seek answers to FPU’s progress in specific areas. They will have a little less than a year to write reports that address focal areas: strategic plans, communication, decision making, finances and During both the last two accreditation cycles, the CPR (Capacity and Preparatory Review) and EER (Educational Effectiveness Review), FPU’s Inquiry Circles were applauded by site visitors and WASC commissioners as a “best practice” for self-study.
Even though WASC identified the focal areas for our 2018 “Special Visit” attention, all accreditation criteria are open to its review, and we are maintaining a bank of evidence across criteria (wascsenior.org/content/standards-glance-2013). There are no firm boundaries, in other words, on the review scope. After FPU submits the report, a “peer-review” visiting team will return to campus in fall 2018, write up its findings and submit recommendations to WASC’s commission for consideration and final decisions.
In between major events, Shirley Warkentin and I keep the accreditation “home fires” burning with monthly conversations about actions and evidence across the campus. Supported by Marrissa Lopez, Patty Salinas engages faculty and staff with data collection, survey construction and administration and report writing.
What is on the horizon for accreditation trends?
All national indicators point toward more comprehensive regulatory scrutiny, additional data reports, increased requirements and more publicly available data.