This image shows four spiral notebooks, perhaps used for student success.

Accreditation Blues

Let’s talk accreditation.

There are nearly 100 accrediting bodies recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the U.S. Department of Education – including regional, faith-related, career, and programmatic entities. Colleges and universities often elect to participate in multiple accrediting bodies, both regional and programmatic. The regional accreditor may be WSCUC, HLC, SACS, Middle States, or NECHE. Depending on its degree offerings, the institution may also use programmatic accreditors (in the case of education or business). It’s no wonder it feels like there is ALWAYS an accreditation effort beginning, underway, or just ending.

Long gone are the days where an accreditation visit is something undertaken once every 10 years. Most accreditors require an annual report, as well as interim updates – perhaps every three to five years – that include student success and learning. If institutions report on key issues more frequently, (it’s assumed) they will notice and address problems earlier. Sounds like a reasonable approach, right?

Stack of spiral notebooks representing accreditation reports.

So, Why Isn’t it Working?

Sure, college and university leaders are digging into the data more frequently to monitor and respond to concerns. Naturally, you’d expect graduation rates would be going up. But nationally, they are nearly flat. Why?

There are two primary reasons for this:

  • The graduation rate that gets the most publicity takes into account only a portion of students (for most institutions) – specifically, First-time, Full-time undergraduate students (see Why the Focus on First-time, Full-time Students? for more on this topic).
  • The rates do not account for institutional and student characteristics. Thus, colleges and universities are chasing an elusive 100% completion rate. Sure – who wouldn’t want a 100% graduation rate? It’s not like higher education leaders are actually striving for less than 100%.

So, yes. On the surface, it looks like the increased monitoring isn’t particularly effective. And that’s because higher education leaders, faculty, and staff work tirelessly to improve a rate that is very limited and often heavily influenced by external forces (e.g., job market, employment rates, federal financial aid policies) – all things that colleges and universities have little to no control over.

What’s the Solution?

Clearly, efforts to improve overall graduation rates that only consider First-time, Full-time students haven’t been enough. IPEDS Outcome Measures allow us to examine the success rates of student groups at a more granular level, and IEHE’s RealityCheck Report can help you identify the student groups on your campus that are doing better than expected, and those that could benefit most from more targeted supports.

Where Can We Make the Biggest Difference?

Consider an institution whose overall graduation rates are low, but the results of the RealityCheck Report indicate that it is primarily the institution’s Part-time, transfer students who are performing at a far lower rate than expected. First, this knowledge alone is a valuable asset to leadership with an upcoming accreditation visit. It helps explain why the institution isn’t where it wants to be in terms of its overall graduation rate. In addition, it provides a guide for where to focus improvement efforts. Accrediting agencies insist on a plan for continuous improvement. And a thorough examination of what is (and isn’t) being done to support this particular student group could yield powerful information to help address concerns about the success of those students. If the institution can improve success for these Part-time, Transfer-in students, the overall completion rate will improve as well. As they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Person kayaking in the ocean into the sunset. Preparing for the accreditation process isn't a solitary affair.

Want to Learn More?

Reach out to our team at IEHE to learn how RealityCheck so we can help you identify and concentrate your resources where they are most needed.