Accreditation in the United States is a voluntary and self-regulatory mechanism of the higher education community. It plays a significant role in fostering public confidence in the educational enterprise, maintaining standards, enhancing institutional effectiveness, and improving higher education by establishing a common set of requirements with which accredited institutions must comply.
Accreditation by the Commission on Colleges signifies that the institution (1) has a mission appropriate to higher education, (2) has resources, programs, and services sufficient to accomplish and sustain that mission, and (3) maintains clearly specified educational objectives that are consistent with its mission and appropriate to the degrees it offers and that indicate whether it is successful in achieving its stated objectives.
The Process of Accreditation
The process for initial and continued accreditation involves a collective analysis and judgment by the institution’s internal constituencies, an informed review by peers external to the institution, and a reasoned decision by the elected members of the Commission on Colleges Board of Trustees. Accredited institutions periodically conduct internal reviews involving their administrative officers, staffs, faculties, students, trustees, and others appropriate to the process. The internal review allows an institution to consider its effectiveness in achieving its stated mission, its compliance with the Commission’s accreditation requirements, its efforts in enhancing the quality of student learning and the quality of programs and services offered to its constituencies, and its success in accomplishing its mission. At the culmination of the internal review, peer evaluators representing the Commission apply their professional judgment through a preliminary assessment of the institution; elected Board Members make the final determination of an institution’s compliance with the accreditation requirements.
Application of the Requirements
The Commission on Colleges bases its accreditation of degree-granting higher education institutions and entities on requirements in the Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement. These requirements apply to all institutional programs and services, wherever located or however delivered. This includes programs offered through distance and correspondence education, off-campus sites, and branch campuses. Consequently, when preparing documents for the Commission demonstrating compliance with the Principles of Accreditation, an institution must include these programs in its “Institutional Summary Form Prepared for Commission Reviews” and address these programs in its analysis and documentation of compliance.
The Commission on Colleges applies the requirements of its Principles to all applicant, candidate, and member institutions, regardless of the type of institution: private for-profit, private not-for-profit, or public.
The Commission evaluates an institution and makes accreditation decisions based on the following:
Compliance with the Principle of Integrity (Section 1)
Compliance with the Core Requirements (Section 2)
Compliance with the Comprehensive Standards (Section 3)
Compliance with additional Federal Requirements (Section 4)
Compliance with the policies of the Commission on Colleges (See Appendix for definition, description, and reference to policies. Access Commission’s Web page:www.sacscoc.org.)
Components of the Review Process
The Commission conducts several types of institutional reviews:
(1) Candidate Committee reviews of institutions seeking candidacy (2) Accreditation Committee reviews of candidate institutions seeking initial membership (3) Reaffirmation Committee reviews of member institutions seeking continued accreditation following a comprehensive review (4) Special Committee reviews of member institutions seeking continued accreditation following evaluation of institutional circumstances that are accreditation related (5) Substantive Change Committee reviews of member institutions seeking approval and continued accreditation following the review of a change of a significant modification or expansion to the institution’s nature and scope.
Each of the above types of reviews has its own evaluation documents and peer review procedures and can be found on the Commission’s Website.
The process described below is specific to a member institution seeking reaffirmation of accreditation.
Preparation by the Institution
As part of the reaffirmation process, the institution will provide two separate documents.
1. Compliance Certification
The Compliance Certification, submitted approximately fifteen months in advance of an institution’s scheduled reaffirmation, is a document completed by the institution that demonstrates its judgment of the extent of its compliance with each of the Core Requirements, Comprehensive Standards, and Federal Requirements. Signatures by the institution’s chief executive officer and accreditation liaison are required to certify compliance. By signing the document, the individuals certify that the process of institutional self-assessment has been thorough, honest, and forthright, and that the information contained in the document is truthful, accurate, and complete.
2. Quality Enhancement Plan
The Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), submitted four to six weeks in advance of the on-site review by the Commission, is a document developed by the institution that (1) includes a process identifying key issues emerging from institutional assessment, (2) focuses on learning outcomes and/or the environment supporting student learning and accomplishing the mission of the institution, (3) demonstrates institutional capability for the initiation, implementation, and completion of the QEP, (4) includes broad-based involvement of institutional constituencies in the development and proposed implementation of the QEP, and (5) identifies goals and a plan to assess their achievement. The QEP should be focused and succinct (no more than seventy-five pages of narrative text and no more than twenty-five pages of supporting documentation or charts, graphs, and tables).
Review by the Commission on Colleges
1. The Off-Site Review
The Off-Site Reaffirmation Committee, composed of a chair and normally eight to ten evaluators, meets in Atlanta, Georgia, and reviews Compliance Certifications of a group of institutions to determine whether each institution is in compliance with all Core Requirements (except Core Requirement 2.12), Comprehensive Standards (except Comprehensive Standard 3.3.2), and Federal Requirements. The group of institutions evaluated, called a cluster, consists of no more than three institutions similar in governance and degrees offered. At the conclusion of the review, the Off-Site Reaffirmation Committee will prepare a separate report for each institution, recording and explaining its decisions regarding compliance. The report is forwarded to the respective institution’s On-Site Reaffirmation Committee which makes its final determination on compliance.
2. The On-Site Review
Following review by the Off-Site Reaffirmation Committee, an On-Site Reaffirmation Committee will conduct a focused evaluation at the campus to finalize issues of compliance with the Core Requirements, Comprehensive Standards, and Federal Requirements; provide consultation regarding the issues addressed in the QEP; and evaluate the acceptability of the QEP. At the conclusion of its visit, the On-Site Committee will finalize the Report of the Reaffirmation Committee, a written report of its findings noting areas of non-compliance, including the acceptability of the QEP. The Report of the Reaffirmation Committee, along with the institution’s response to areas of non-compliance, will be forwarded to the Commission’s Board of Trustees for review and action on reaffirmation.
3. Review by the Commission’s Board of Trustees
The Committees on Compliance and Reports (C & R), standing committees of the Board, review reports prepared by evaluation committees and the institutional responses to those reports. A C & R Committee’s recommendation regarding an institution’s reaffirmation of accreditation is forwarded to the Executive Council for review. The Executive Council recommends action to the full Board of Trustees which makes the final decision on reaffirmation and any monitoring activities that it may require of an institution. The full Board convenes twice a year.