Costly accreditation surveys help U review programs

Sam Kean

The availability of millions of financial aid dollars, the ability of graduate professionals to receive licenses and much of the University’s standing among peers can be traced to one condition: This institution remains accredited.

Every decade 3,000 schools in the country undergo a multi-year accreditation review to receive reconfirmation they provide an adequate education. If schools don’t receive accreditation, their students become ineligible for federal financial aid, and the schools receive an embarrassing scar.

But it’s not as if the University and similar institutions won’t receive accreditation.

The University “might receive suggestions (about accreditation), but it’s never denied,” said Geri Malandra, senior analyst in the office of the executive vice president and provost. It’s simply too well established, she said.

Thus, some higher education specialists have begun to review the accreditation process – an ordeal that costs the University and each of its 95 departments years of work and up to $250,000 in labor at least once per decade. All this is done for what some have criticized as an “expensive, time-consuming process that bears little, if any, relationship to institutions’ ongoing cycles of review, change, improvement, and accountability,” according to an executive vice president and provost report presented to the Board of Regents in June. As a result, changes await the University when it faces accreditation in 2005-06.

Each University campus and 95 of its departments receive separate accreditation. Certain programs require different examinations because of a need to ensure their specialized teaching methods are up to standard – nearly half these departments are in the Medical School. The University campuses undergo accreditation every 10 years, and the cycle varies for other departments.

For each accreditation, there are two parts: a self-study to collect data on issues such as financial aid, housing and graduation rates – which can take up to three years – and a presentation to an external board of peers.

When asked in an informal survey what aspects of accreditation benefited them most, departments often said they learned a great deal about themselves from conducting the study. In general, specialized programs benefit more from the review process than the University as a whole, said the regents’ report.

But colleges such as the Carlson School of Management said they would be collecting and studying data on their students, professors and teaching methods anyway.

Malandra said the presentation to a board of peers usually just validates the self-study. Even if found in violation, The Chronicle of Higher Education stated in a January 2001 report, “regional accreditors punish colleges rarely and inconsistently.”

Validation can be helpful, though. The School of Journalism and Mass Communication awaited accreditation last year to confirm that its investments had translated into a better school.

“You can toot your own horn all you want,” but external validation proved the school was on the right track said Scott Elton, who coordinated SJMC’s self-study and three-day presentation to five journalism reviewers.

Still, one impetus of accreditation – improving the quality of the school – has fallen behind, said the informal survey in the report. “It is difficult to sustain changes,” some undergoing accreditation said. “The effects … last for two (to) three years, and then everyone seems to forget.”

Others in the survey complained collecting the “mind-boggling” amount of data burdened faculty, staff and administrators.

Conducting only internal reviews and cutting out accreditation agencies would be optimal, said Medical School Associate Dean of Education Gregory Vercellotti. But with millions of funding dollars at stake, “you probably can’t trust people.”

Nevertheless, Malandra said she expects the eight regional accreditations agencies – all of whom answer to the federal government – to shift their focus from merely ensuring compliance to a “continual improvement model.”

This will help schools move past “just the mechanical accreditation,” Malandra said.