|Posted on July 25, 2016 at 11:10 AM|
American accreditors fall into three broad groups: regional, national, and specialized. Of the three, regional accreditation is often seen as the most desirable for several reasons. First, regional accreditors are among the oldest accreditors in the U.S. and accredit the most prestigious institutions, giving them an image of quality. Second, employers are increasingly requiring job applicants to hold degrees from regionally accredited institutions. Third, some specialized accreditors require accredited programs to be in a regionally accredited institution. And finally, despite Federal regulations to the contrary, students from nationally-accredited institutions sometimes find it hard to transfer their credits elsewhere or to pursue a more advanced degree.
For all these reasons, nationally-accredited institutions sometimes consider pursuing regional accreditation. Unfortunately, in many instances regional accreditation is simply not a good fit—it’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Then the institution may either fail in its efforts to earn regional accreditation or, once accredited, run into problems maintaining its accreditation.
When might regional accreditation be a good fit?
1. Regional accreditation is only open to institutions that award at least one degree. If your institution offers only certificates and/or diplomas, it isn’t eligible.
2. Regional accreditors require all undergraduate degree programs to include certain components, including a general education or core curriculum studying the liberal arts and the development of certain skills and competencies.
3. Regional accreditors require a system of shared collegial governance. While none prescribes a particular governance system, all require that the respective roles, responsibilities, and authority of the board, leadership, administration, and faculty be clearly articulated. And an implicit expectation is that the institutional culture be one of communication and collaboration; regional accreditation simply becomes very difficult without these.
4. Because regional accreditors accredit a vast array of institutions, their standards are relatively imprecise, more a set of principles that are applied within the context of each institution’s mission. Regional accreditation is therefore a process that requires considerable time, thought, and effort by many members of the institutional community, not a task to be delegated to someone.
5. Regional accreditors expect a commitment to ongoing improvement beyond the minimum required for accreditation. Regional accreditation is not appropriate for an institution content to teeter on the edge of the bare minimum required for compliance.
6. Regional accreditors expect a commitment to collegiality within and across institutions. Volunteer peers from other institutions will work with your institution, and the accreditor expects your institution to return the favor once accredited, providing volunteer peer evaluators, presenting at conferences, and so on.
7. Regional accreditors expect a board that is empowered and committed to act in the best interests of the institution and its students. Again, regional accreditors are not prescriptive about board make-up and duties, but they want to see a board that has the commitment, capacity and authority to act in the institution’s best interests. Suppose, for example, that the president/CEO/owner develops early-onset Alzheimer’s and begins to make irrational decisions that are not in the best interest of the institution. Can the board bring about a change in leadership? If the board heads a corporation, can it put institutional quality ahead of immediate shareholder return on investment? If the board oversees other entities that are troubled, such as a church, hospital, or another educational institution, can it put the best interests of the accredited institution first, or will it be tempted to rob Peter to pay Paul?
Some shameless self-promotion here: my book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability aims to explain what regional accreditors are looking for in plain terms. If your nationally-accredited institution is considering moving to regional accreditation, I think the book is a worthwhile investment.