What Are Our Chances for Accreditation Reaffirmation Success?

What are our chances for accreditation reaffirmation success?

This is probably THE top question that presidents have asked me over my nearly 15 years of deep accreditation work. And – it is a tricky question to answer. What does one mean by success? In this article, I share data that I’ve analyzed from the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) about the possibilities for accreditation success and offer suggestions – based on data – for answering this tricky question from your president.

There are many, many, many different outcomes from an accreditation visit. The outcomes range from “see you in 10 years” to “we need a focused report in less than a year” to “the institution is on formal warning/notice of concern.”

I’ve been doing work this long enough to reinterpret the president’s question. What they are really asking is:

  • Will we pass or fail? (Will we be reaffirmed accreditation?)
  • What area/range of accreditation outcomes is our institution likely to be in?

The first question is at a high level – will we pass or will we fail? The second question is more granular – which level of passing or failure are we in?

Take an exam in a course, for example. The class test results can be reported as the percentage that passed and failed. However, we know that passing with a perfect score of 100% is not the same as passing with a D grade.

Much like other evaluation processes, the normal distribution curve applies. Few are in the “top” category, and few are in the “lowest” category. Few students get 100%, and very few get in the lowest categories (e.g., 10 or 20%).

The same is true for accreditation – and the data from CHEA support it.

CHEA Data Analyzed – Pass/Fail

Let’s first look at the topic of pass/fail with accreditation actions.

I used CHEA’s Almanac of External Quality Review, which offers data about annual accreditation activities of institutional and programmatic accreditors recognized by CHEA and/or the U.S. Department of Education.

In their most recent report, using data provided by the accrediting agencies, CHEA notes that accrediting bodies took nearly 5,000 actions on colleges, universities, programs, and freestanding institutions in 2018-19. Of these, more than three-quarters (76.2%) resulted in ‘passing,’ as shown below.

It is important to note that some of the other actions may not be considered a ‘fail’ – but they definitely are not passing. For example, withdrew accreditation could be at the institution’s choosing so that they can put forth a more robust application at a later date.

Setting Expectations on Accreditation Outcomes

Let’s now dig deeper into the CHEA data. As I noted before, there are different degrees of ‘passing’ just like there are with a course exam (e.g., passing with a B grade is not the same as passing with a grade of D-).

A deeper dive into the formal actions taken against institutions or programs previously accredited reveals that more than half (55%) of institutions have consistently received high marks with ‘accreditation continued’ (without a follow-up report). This is the category that all institutions strive for.

Next is the part where I help to set institutional expectations for reaffirmation of accreditation.

If 55% of institutions received an outcome of “accreditation continued without a follow-up report,” – then that means that 45% of institutions received an action that will require more institutional work. Ok… before anyone gets too worried, let’s dig in a bit further. Of the 45%:

  • 30% received the outcome of ‘accreditation continued’ – but it also came with a follow-up report. Not ideal, but not terrible. Essentially, this means that the institution will have another report to submit to the accreditor very soon – but focused on a select number of topics that need additional information and/or attention from the institution.
  • Less than 5% of institutions fall into each of the remaining categories (e.g., Notice or Warning, Probation, Show Cause, Accreditation Terminated or Removed, Actions under appeal). So, really really bad accreditation actions are unlikely – but they do happen. These less than desirable accreditation outcomes are intended to help the institution focus on the issues identified by the review team and resolve them as soon as possible.

I’ve worked with several institutions on notice of concern and/or warning to a very successful reaffirmation at the following review.

Answering the Tough Question About Accreditation Success

So how do I answer the tricky question: “What are our chances for accreditation reaffirmation success?”

I am a data person myself – and many presidents want to know about the data at a high level. So, I might say something like this:

“More than 75% of institutions ‘pass’ their accreditation review. After all – the institution is focused on making improvements and doing good work. In terms of ‘accreditation work’ coming to a close after the visiting team leaves, you should know that about half of institutions have no follow-up work before their next visit. This means that we should do all we can to put extra effort into this accreditation report and visit. The next likely outcome is that we will pass but have a follow-up report – which happens to about 30% of institutions.”

I’ll also add to this comment based upon institutional circumstances such as issues raised during their last review, known deficiencies in the current report, comments from the off-site review team, etc. When applicable, I will discuss the more unfavorable outcomes (e.g., notice of concern or warning). However, I would back those comments with other institutional examples (which require more research).

Coordinating Accreditation Tasks

To save yourself and your accreditation team even more work, it’s essential for your first effort at the accreditation process to be as effective, accurate, and comprehensive as possible to avoid adverse action. Much like the course exam analogy that I used earlier in this article, it is time well spent to put in the work on the class each week so that the exam is simply a demonstration of the work already done.

Most things with a high benefit often require a fair amount of work. And the accreditation reaffirmation process is no different – the accreditation reaffirmation process is a lot of work. Getting through the reaffirmation process takes a great deal of time and effort by many people within the institution.

I’m one of those folks that actually enjoys the accreditation process and am passionate about accreditation work (yes – we do exist). Why (many people ask)? I love showcasing the amazing work that incredibly committed people (e.g., faculty, staff, and administrators) do for student success. Additionally, I’m passionate about continuous improvement. The resulting report from the review team helps the institution identify opportunities for improvement.

Since I’ve traveled the accreditation review road many, many times (too many to count), I often share some of my tips and lessons learned. I’ve found that almost no one that has done deep accreditation work with institutions writes about it. Instead – it is all word of mouth. Getting tips from colleagues is great. But when you try to solve a problem and look for resources to help, we all tend to turn to Google.

Resources for Your Accreditation Reports

As such, I’ve written a few articles on the topic of practically managing successful accreditation reports. If you are tasked with managing your institution’s accreditation process or writing the report, you may be interested in Five Tips for Accreditation Liaisons for Effectively Preparing Your Reaffirmation of Accreditation Report. Additionally, if your institution was one of the 30% of institutions with a follow-up report (e.g., special report, monitoring report, interim report), check out my article on Six+ Effective Strategies for Writing Special Reports, Monitoring Reports, Interim Reports for an Accreditor. I’ve written and edited my fair share of these reports. I share some practical advice for writing reports that result in a successful outcome for the institution.

Lastly, it is easy to get caught up in the busyness of accreditation reports and visits. Remember that your accreditor is rooting for your institutional success. They literally want you and your institution to succeed. I find that most staff at accreditors say, ‘we are here to help the institution; reach out if you have questions.’ I know many people wonder, “Do they really mean it? Can I really call if I have a question without it being held against the institution?” I have found the offer to help to be quite genuine and quite advantageous to the institution.

Having served on review teams many times, no one wants to write a negative report – unless it really warrants it. There are many people on the accreditation review team and at the accreditation office cheering for your institutional success.

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