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A Fool-proof Guide to Accreditation

Linda SuskieLinda Suskie

Over the last decade I’ve helped hundreds of colleges and universities across the United States prepare for accreditation reviews. I recently summarized much of what I’ve learned through my work in a new book, “Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability.”

Let me share with you some of the many ways that colleges and universities can annoy their accreditor and thereby make the accreditation process a lot harder than it needs to be.

Start at the last minute, and don’t bother reading the directions. Instead, make sure you understand exactly what your accreditor is looking for … and why. If your accreditor wants student enrollment information, for example, is the request because of concerns about student success, your college’s financial viability, or something else?

Ignore your mission and goals. Instead, present your evidence in the context of your mission and goals. Reviewers looking at that student enrollment information need to know, for example, how important access and opportunity are to your college’s mission.

Present everything through rose-colored glasses, and sweep any shortcomings under the rug. If your accreditor has questions or requests you don’t want to answer, just ignore them. Instead, remember that honesty is the best policy. There’s no perfect college, and presenting your college as trouble-free may raise a red flag about what you might be hiding. Provide a balanced picture of positives and negatives.

Fill your report with unsupported platitudes and sweeping generalizations. Instead, use systematic evidence to make the case that your college is doing what the accreditor wants. Statements such as “Faculty are dedicated to teaching” and “Students thrive here academically” need to be supported by compelling evidence or removed from your narrative.

Provide just a bare minimum of evidence. I’m often asked, “How much evidence is enough to satisfy the accreditor?” My answer is that this is the wrong question. The question should be, “How much evidence does our college community need to see to be sure that we have pervasive quality?”

For example, if you’re only collecting evidence of student learning in some programs, or for some general education requirements, or at some locations, your college is essentially saying it cares more about some students than others. Pervasive, systematic evidence isn’t a matter of accreditation compliance; it’s a matter of integrity.

If you’re not doing something the accreditor wants, just say a committee is talking about it. Instead, provide a clear, appropriately detailed plan with timelines and accountabilities to address the accreditor’s concern. This helps assure the accreditor that you understand what needs to be done and you’ll be up to speed in good time.

Make the reviewers’ job as hard as possible. Never mind that they are probably doing this as volunteers and have day jobs. Instead, aim for a report that is both concise and thorough, with a clear, well-organized structure and narrative that focuses on what the accreditor needs to see.

Make everything easy to find and understand, with plenty of simple tables, charts and jargon-free language. If your report consists of sections contributed by various individuals and groups, have someone edit the entire report carefully, so information and statements are consistent throughout.

Append anything that appears to be remotely related — even the kitchen sink. Attach every faculty member’s résumé, for example, and leave it to the reviewers to read them all and decide if the faculty are appropriately qualified. Instead, provide summaries and analyses for supporting evidence that make the case that you are complying with the accreditor’s requirements. Reviewers should need to look through supporting documentation only to confirm your case for compliance, not to make the case themselves.

Use another college’s report as a model. Recognize instead that one size does not fit all. No matter what your college’s mission, your college is unique. It serves a distinctive combination of students in a distinctive location or modality with a distinctive combination of programs and services. Your college has a unique story to tell to your accreditor, one that must be told in a unique voice.

Approach your accreditation review as a pointless chore. Instead, look on the review as an opportunity to take a view from 30,000 feet above what you’re doing, how effective you are and how you might become even more effective.

Accreditation reviews can be an occasion to take down silos and build bridges of interaction and collaboration. If you take full advantage of the opportunity of an accreditation review, within a couple of years your college will doubtless reach new levels of excellence.

Linda Suskie is a consultant, writer, speaker and educator on assessment and accreditation and a former vice president at the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Her books include “Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide and Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability.”

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