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Higher Education Accreditation (in the United States) - Effect on Organizational Structures and Impact on Policies and Practices

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Effect on Organizational Structures

Accreditation is mainly about an institution’s ability to assess itself against its stated mission and goals and honestly and openly report on the findings, with the assumption that providing students with an education is embedded in its mission and goals. Initially, providing an education to students involved lecturers lecturing to the students and the students learning, but as institutions grew and with the advent of accreditation there came the need to verify that the students were learning. This meant putting structures in place to accommodate accreditation.

The institution needed more administrators to help them gather and process the data needed for accreditation and to help them accomplish their task of managing the university. “Both intellectually and in terms of its structure, the American university was becoming too diverse easily to define – or to control” (Veysey, 1965, 311). This gave rise to multiple departments dedicated to gathering, processing and reporting the data needed for accreditation.

New divisions that arose out of accreditation include quality assurance, institutional research and institutional effectiveness. Depending on the size of the university these may be one department or several departments and they would share the responsibility of gathering, processing, and reporting the data necessary for accreditation. This data is wide and varied and includes data on registration numbers, retention rates, graduation rates and student learning, all of which is now necessary as part of the accreditation process.

Smaller institutions may higher one or two individuals dedicated to quality assurance and institutional effectiveness whose job would be collect, process and report data on these matters related to accreditation, while larger institutions would have separate departments for quality assurance and institutional effectiveness. So important has accreditation become that the terms ‘quality assurance’, ‘institutional research’ and ‘institutional effectiveness’ are now enshrined in the vernacular of American colleges and universities.

Impact on policies and practices

Decisions on whether a higher education institution will seek or maintain accreditation is usually done at the board or trustee level and this determines the polices and practices of the institution with regards to what institutional data it collects and how this data is collected, processed and reported. An institution that is not accredited can collect whatever data it deems necessary, in whatever manner it pleases and for whatever purposes it needs, but an accredited institution must collect and report specific data, for a specific purpose, in a specific manner.

The self-study and its corresponding report is the main process by which data is collected and reported for accreditation, measuring an institution’s performance against the standards established by the accreditor (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). The Higher Learning Commission lists the self-study and peer-evaluation as two important and major processes that are part of accreditation, but each institution “has the prerogative to plan and conduct the self-study process in a way that leads to its preferred continuous improvement” (Higher Learning Commission, n.d.).

The issue of student learning outcomes being linked to accreditation became an issue in the 1980s because of a high default rate of federal student aid recepients and led to standards on institutional effectiveness becoming part of the accreditation data collected and reported on. This culminated in 1992 with the reaffirmation of the HEA that included specific “areas that accreditors needed to include in their standards and reviews, including curriculum, faculty, and student achievement” (Brittingham, 2009, p. 23).

The measurement and reporting of student learning outcomes continued to be a thorn in the side of accreditors and came to a head in 2006 when the Spellings Commission issued a report slamming accreditation’s inability to properly, consistently and across all higher education domains account for student learning. The Commission’s report criticized accreditation for “not providing “solid evidence, comparable across institutions, of how much students learn in colleges or whether they learn more at one college than another’” (Brittingham, 2009, p. 23).

Eaton (2010) notes that the Spellings Commission’s report said that accreditation “failed to address student achievement adequately, did not encourage innovation, and did not effectively inform the public about academic quality, failing to give students and the public the basis to compare institutions” (p. 2). Recommendations were put forward in the report to address these issues by having the institutions issue reports that are easily understandable and accessible about student achievement and ensuring student achievement is at the heart of pronouncements on academic quality (Eaton, 2010).