For schools, colleges, and universities in higher education, accreditation is everything. If you lose accreditation, you also lose your ability to attract students and generate revenue. But do you know everything that goes into earning the right accreditation and staying accredited?
What is Accreditation?
Accreditation is simply the technical term used to describe the process that a program or institution goes through in order to be “verified” by the appropriate governing bodies. It’s a process that involves rigorous review and high-level evaluation from experts and independent sources in the field. It’s the ultimate stamp of approval for a school or program and is often a deciding factor in funding, program approval, and even which students choose to attend which programs.
Theoretically, accreditation assures those outside of the organization that there’s a certain quality of teaching, curriculum, student achievement, and academic support. This accreditation indicates that the institution or program meets the most basic standards of quality and excellence in the field of higher education.
Understanding Types of Accreditation
According to ExploreHealthCareers.org, “There are two different types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic / specialized. Institutional accreditation refers to the status conferred upon the entire school or university. Programmatic or specialized accreditation refers to the status conferred upon a program, department, school within a university, or certificate program, as examples.”
It’s very rare that a non-accredited school/program would receive outside funding or grant money. It’s also rare that students in technical fields like healthcare, law, or IT will pursue degrees from programs that lack accreditation. (Most licensing bodies in these fields require students to attend an accredited institution before sitting for one of their exams.)
Different types of organizations can grant accreditation. There are, however, certain types of accreditation that are more widely respected than others. Most institutions are only interested in being accredited by organizations that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and/or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
4 Factors That Impact Program Accreditation
The accreditation process is complex and varies from organization to organization, but if you’re looking for some insights on how you can improve your program’s chances of accreditation, here are some lesser-known factors to take a second look at:
- Course Offerings
Course offerings clearly have a lot to do with whether a program is accredited, as well as which body does the accrediting.
In order for a program to be accredited, it’s typically required to offer a certain number of courses in various subject matters. It may also be required to maintain the proper ratio of beginner, intermediate, and advanced courses.
In terms of ongoing course offerings, continued accreditation usually requires degree programs to maintain appropriate levels of difficulty to ensure graduate competency. If it’s deemed that a program is too easy, it could be brought under scrutiny.
- Diversity of Enrollment
The issue of diversity in higher education has been a lightning rod for criticism for many years. While most agree that diversity is a good thing, there will always be those who argue that mandating certain levels of diversity undermines a program’s ability to simply attract the best student, regardless of age, race, gender, religion, etc. (Proponents obviously argue that a lack of rules leaves the system open to prejudice.)
Different accrediting bodies look at different measurements and have unique requirements in place for diversity. Take the Commission on Peer Review & Accreditation (COPRA) as an example.
“COPRA evaluates diversity against the context of the program itself, allowing programs based in different geographic locales and regions to be sensitive to local diversity issues and concerns,” the organization explains. “Programs are expected to provide program- and mission-specific diversity plans that detail strategies to promote faculty, student, and curricular diversity and foster an overall climate of inclusiveness.”
Other accrediting bodies have firm numbers and ratios that must be followed, regardless of all outside circumstances. This is more common in large public universities with generalized program offerings.
- Big Data
There are certain elements of accreditation that are entirely subjective. For example, accrediting boards can use their discretion when determining whether or not a program’s initiatives are in alignment with their stated mission statement. Then there are other elements that are entirely objective – based purely on data.
Over the last 18 months or so, big data has played a more prominent role in the evaluation of programs and how proficient they are at meeting pre-defined thresholds for competency. In the coming years, it’ll play an even more important part.
“When used in the world of higher education, big data can give us insights into student and teacher behaviors,” writes Conrad Lotze, Vice President and Dean of the School of Education at American Public University System. “As it relates to accreditation, big data can give us tremendous detail about exactly what students are or are not learning in their courses. By drilling down to the objective level on assessments, interested parties can see which standards have been met and at what level of proficiency, which is the main objective of accreditation.”
Big data isn’t the end-all-be-all for accreditation, but it’s certainly helpful to view alongside more subjective metrics. If nothing else, it provides a granular level of detail that helps facilitate better and more accurate decision making.
- Video Observation
Many leading accreditation boards now require, or are beginning to require, video observation in order for a program to be accredited. In other words, they want to see actual proof of what’s happening behind closed doors.
This speaks to a larger trend of cutting through the noise and seeing exactly what’s happening inside the classroom. In today’s system, it’s less about what a program says and more about what it does.
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