Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Redesigning Regional Accreditation

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Redesigning Regional Accreditation

Article excerpt

The Impact on Institutional Planning

Regional accrediting bodies continue to sharpen their focus on student learning, with implications for planners.


Regional accreditation, the "gold standard" of higher education institutional quality, has been around at least since the 1850s (Ewell 2008). In U.S. Accreditation and the Future of Quality Assurance, Ewell (2008) describes four distinct periods in the history of accreditation in the United States, which range from defining a college to the current age of accountability. Many suggest that we are entering a fifth period of redesign that refocuses accreditation compliance from an evaluation of institutional resources and internal operations to a distinct emphasis on outcomes. This article describes the redesign that is occurring at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS COC), one of the six regional accrediting associations,1 and the national implications of this redesign. Specifically, the article outlines some of the important changes in regional accreditation and their projected impact on institutional planning.

Regional accreditation takes on increasing significance when one considers that it is becoming more global. For example, SACS COC accredits institutions in Latin America and the United Arab Emirates, and the other five regional associations also accredit institutions around the world. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that colleges and universities located in other parts of the world frequently emulate practices developed in the United States, including accreditation processes. As a result, accreditation redesign may also have a far-reaching impact on institutional planning, regardless of an institution's regional affiliation. The SACS COC accreditation redesign requires institutions to demonstrate impact on student learning. To do so, institutions allocate resources and focus their planning on ensuring that students meet the targeted learning objectives. It is important to note that regional accreditation associations are fundamentally similar, as described in the next section.

Common Patterns Among Regional Accreditation Associations

Constitutional limitations prevent the formation of a centralized, federal system of education that exercises control over all postsecondary educational institutions in the United States. Instead, U.S. postsecondary institutions enjoy considerable autonomy, with states providing most of the oversight. To ensure a level of quality from one state to another, regional accreditation developed as a means of providing nongovernmental, peer-to-peer evaluations of institutional quality.

The regional accreditation associations are located in different geographical areas of the country and reflect the historical and cultural differences of these regions. They vary in the number of institutions they accredit from under 200 to well over 1,000. These institutions serve over 14 million students (Wolff 2005). Despite their differences, the regional associations have many similarities in that each has a published set of standards and each uses similar stages in the accreditation process: eligibility and candidacy, self-review, on-site team visit, and decision/appeal. Figure 1 outlines these common features; a discussion of each is also presented.

Eligibility and candidacy. In this stage, the institution first applies to the regional association to demonstrate that it meets the basic standards of the review process. The eligibility application documents that the institution is licensed in a state covered by the regional association and that it meets eligibility standards, such as having a bona fide governance structure, faculty with appropriate credentials, degree-granting status, and a general education component. When the association determines that the institution has met eligibility requirements, the institution may apply for candidacy. …

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