What Do Board Members Need to Know About Changes in Accreditation?

By Mary Ellen Petrisko    //    Volume 25,  Number 5   //    September/October 2017

Both the increased scrutiny placed on accreditation and the recent changes made to it demand that boards understand their roles and responsibilities related to the process. Trusteeship spoke with Mary Ellen Petrisko, president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).

What should board members know about the increased scrutiny placed on accreditation, and what do they need to be aware of to ensure their institutions are in good standing with their accreditors?

The first thing that board members should know is that many legislators, journalists, and think tanks are scrutinizing—and in some cases attacking—accreditation due to serious concerns on the part of the public about the quality of education received by students and the debt that students incur in pursuit of their degrees. Critics are questioning how well accreditors are doing their job as quality assurance agencies and are asking in some cases whether accreditors should still be gatekeepers for federal student aid. This dissatisfaction directly relates to board members’ responsibilities to ensure that their institutions are fulfilling their missions, are financially sound, are serving their students well, and are planning for the future based on data and evidence. Questions asked of accreditors are questions that could be asked of boards as well, the answers to which require board awareness and involvement.

Boards should be aware of their accreditors’ standards, their institutions’ accreditation status, annual and other reports required by the accreditor, and all visits by the accreditor. They should support the investment and resource allocations necessary to ensure compliance with accreditation standards because those standards comprise the framework for institutional quality. They should also be available for meetings with accreditation teams when they visit the institution, as accreditors need to understand how boards are fulfilling their legal and fiduciary authority and maintaining appropriate oversight over the institution.

What were the most recent changes to WSCUC accreditation standards, and why were they made?

Our 2013 Handbook of Accreditation Revised differed from its 2008 predecessor in some important ways, many of which focused accreditation processes more explicitly on outcomes. The handbook emphasizes the use of data and specifics regarding the data that are to be collected, analyzed, and made public regarding student achievement, as well as the rigor expected in programs and the need to ensure both the achievement of core competencies and the meaning, quality, and integrity of degrees. There is much greater emphasis on finances and institutional sustainability. Governing boards are explicitly mentioned as among those responsible for institutional reflection and planning processes. Clear reference is made to institutions serving the public good, and institutions are expected to be aware of the rapid change affecting higher education and plan accordingly. There was also significant change to WSCUC processes, intended to reduce cost and burden to institutions.

These changes were made based on environmental scanning and a process involving focus groups and town hall meetings as well as commissioned white papers on issues of importance in higher education. The need for good information on student achievement, evidence-based decision making, an increasingly diverse student population, and financial challenges clearly influenced the changes in the current handbook.

What are the greatest challenges faced by higher education institutions seeking accreditation?

For institutions that have never been accredited, two of the biggest challenges are developing and implementing assessment systems that enable them to know whether their intended outcomes—learning outcomes chief among them—are being met and where they need improvement, and using the data and information gathered through assessment as the basis for evidence-grounded decision making and resource allocation. Explicit learning outcomes must be developed and made public; measures to assess achievement must be developed and applied. Results of those measurements must be analyzed to learn where improvement is necessary, and actions to improve must be taken based on the evidence gathered. For institutional governing boards and leadership, having an appropriate governance structure—with clearly defined areas of authority across the various constituencies involved in shared governance—can be a challenge, particularly if decision making is shared with a related entity such as a corporate parent, religious sponsor, or other body with authority regarding the institution’s operations.