Getting Accreditation Right

There are plenty of ways faculty members and administrators can help improve the process, writes Linda Suskie in a new book.

December 17, 2014

Linda Suskie knows the accreditation process. She has seen it from both sides during her four-decade career in higher education, which has included stints as a university administrator and as a vice president at a regional accrediting agency.

Now Suskie wants to share some of that experience. In her book, Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability (Wiley), Suskie hits both the big picture and the nitty-gritty details. But don't worry, the book includes frequent jargon translations, which help to demystify the sometimes-impenetrable world of accreditation.

Inside Higher Ed recently discussed the book with Suskie over e-mail. Excerpts from the exchange follow.

Q: In the book you mention inconsistencies in how accreditors work. Would standardization help?

A: Inconsistency in requirements and procedures among specialized and regional accreditors and some states is definitely an issue. But there shouldn’t be complete consistency -- a health programs accreditor should require some things that a regional accreditor need not, and vice versa. And what I like about having seven regional accreditors in the U.S. is that it gives us seven think tanks, each one innovating and the others learning and adapting. If the regionals merged, we’d risk standardizing a lowest-common-denominator process as well as stifling the higher-education diversity and innovation our country needs.

What I suggest in my book is that we create a competitive environment for regional accreditors by letting them all accredit institutions anywhere in the country. Over time each accreditor would assume a distinctive character, which might help prospective students choose colleges that are the best fit. A modest core of common expectations across accreditors and government agencies is worth exploring. The recent work of the regionals to standardize some of their language is a good start.

Q: You say accreditation is not "irreparably" broken. Does the process require any major changes? 

A: Considering that accreditation reviews are typically conducted by volunteers with support from small staffs and lean budgets, the work accomplished is amazing. I have never met more dedicated people, and the vast majority of reviews are incredibly helpful. Some institutions have transitioned to a whole new level of excellence thanks to a push from their accreditor.

But there’s room for improvement beyond creating a core of common expectations. Because volunteer peer reviewers are largely working professionals, the time they can devote to accreditation training is limited, and this can lead to inconsistent reviews. I would not want to change the fundamental model of volunteer peer review, because people who work at colleges are best-equipped to understand what’s happening at other colleges. But we could do more to ensure appropriate training and staff support.

Another issue is that employers increasingly require new hires to hold degrees from regionally accredited institutions. This has led many institutions with missions of career preparation to seek regional accreditation. Many of them successfully earn and retain that accreditation. But there are other perfectly good institutions that struggle because they weren’t designed with traits the regionals historically valued, such as study in the liberal arts, shared collegial governance and faculty scholarship. I’d like us to move to a place where, in appropriate situations, national accreditation is more valued.

Q: You wrote that the reputation of colleges continues to hold too much sway in quality reviews. Any chance this will change?

A: Yes, researchers George Kuh and Ernest Pascarella concluded that “selectivity and educational quality are, for all practical purposes, unrelated.” My book supports their conclusion by citing colleges and universities with both high and lesser reputations that model aspects of the five dimensions of quality: relevance and responsiveness, community, focus and aspiration (mission and goals), evidence (assessment) and betterment (improvement).

I’d love to move public perceptions so reputation is more closely aligned with the five dimensions of quality. We may be able to pursue this as the U.S. Department of Education explores ways to give accreditors greater authority to establish tiers of accreditation excellence. If accreditors can move from a pass/fail system to one that lets them award As, they could recognize colleges that demonstrate rigorously defined excellence in, say, helping students learn or evidence-informed betterment through accreditation “with distinction” for those criteria.

Q: Should the federal government play a stronger role in quality assurance in higher education?

A: That depends on what you mean by “stronger.” Quality assurance in the U.S. is often defined as a triad of the federal government, state governments and accreditors, although the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which recognizes about 60 accreditors, makes it a foursome. The federal government might support communication, collaborations and the sharing of good and best practices among all these players. It could also analyze the relative costs and benefits of federal regulation of accreditors.

Q: What's your advice for how colleges should structure their financial priorities around quality?

A: One of the big themes of my book is “put your money where your mouth is.” Review where your college is in terms of the five dimensions of quality. Accreditation processes are, of course, a great opportunity to engage in this review. Then use your review to set priorities, and deploy resources in ways that will help your college make meaningful progress on those priorities.

Unfortunately many colleges today have no new resources to deploy. For them, it may be time to limit and focus their priorities, rather than aim to be so many things to so many people, then redeploy their resources.

Q: How can colleges be more honest in their self-appraisals before an accreditation review?

A: Honesty is a matter of integrity. If a college is not honest with itself, it cannot present itself accurately to its accreditor. An accreditation report that ignores or glosses over issues can raise a huge red flag with an accreditor, because there is no college without issues. The reviewers wonder, “What else are they hiding?” and now the college has an integrity issue on top of everything else. You do not want to go there. Instead, sandwich bad news within good news: “Our evidence shows that we’re doing X really well but that there’s room for improvement with Y. We’re addressing Y by implementing Z.”

Q: Any other tips for institutions preparing for an accreditation review?

A: First, read the directions! I’m continually amazed by accreditation reports that don’t provide what the accreditor has explicitly requested.

Second, respect the reviewers’ time. Make a clear case for compliance rather than expect reviewers to figure things out on their own. Make everything easy to find and understand, with summaries and analyses supported by good quality documented evidence for everything you say.

Third, don’t lose sight of the big picture. Instead of simply responding to every accreditation request, ask yourselves, “Why is the accreditor asking for this? Why is this so important?” This is why I wrote my book: to help people understand the “why” of accreditation and accountability and therefore do a better job on the “what.”

Finally, keep in mind that this is all about the fundamental purpose we all share: making sure our students get a great education.



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