Tighter accreditation standards
Rising demands from the federal government are forcing local universities to assess their education standards.
Colleges and universities nationwide have been feeling a push in the past two years from U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and others to become more accountable for how successfully they educate students.
“It’s been certainly a lot of pressure,” said Washington and Lee University Associate Dean of Students Elizabeth Knapp. “Even many of the accrediting bodies are being discussed as to whether or not they’re as strict as they can be.”
Knapp is part of a broad leadership team coordinating efforts for Washington and Lee University’s reaccreditation visit by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, known as SACS, in spring 2009.
Virginia Military Institute had its reaccreditation visit last year and was notified this month that it has been fully accredited. Southern Virginia University is not accredited by SACS.
SACS requires reaccreditation every 10 years. The association has recently been pushing the standard of assessment.
“Many things have changed since our reaccreditation 10 years ago in terms of what we’re required to document and show,” said Knapp. “We used to think of that as trying to evaluate something, and now we talk about assessment. It’s just a really different way of thinking from what we’ve had to do.”
Lt. Col. Stewart MacInnis, associate director of communications and marketing at VMI, said new SACS requirements include creating plans that encompass measurable goals to be reported on, including an annual operational plan and a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP).
“This is a new administrative requirement,” said MacInnis, “but one we have accepted.”
MacInnis said that VMI chose to make its QEP the revision of its core curriculum.
“This is a major undertaking, and by making it our QEP we are binding ourselves to report on it 10 years from now when we go through accreditation again,” said MacInnis.
“We used the accreditation process as a tool to help us accomplish it, rather than looking at the QEP as just another requirement piled on our shoulders.”
Faculty members at W&L complain of more work without a reduction in other areas. Others oppose any attempt at assessment because they believe it’s an intrusion on their academic freedom.
“It has been a tremendous amount of work for all involved, and there has been a lot of resentment for what seems to be such a change,” said Knapp. She said that most faculty members think the new process will hinder both their creativity and their time.
Local colleges are not alone in those sentiments.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities, which represents 1,100 public and private schools including W&L and VMI, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which coordinates national accreditation, released a statement to address public pressure Jan. 30 at the accreditation council’s annual meeting.
The document, “New Leadership for Student Learning and Accountability: A Statement of Principles, Commitments to Action,” says that while colleges are committed to measuring and reporting learning outcomes, they firmly believe that individual institutions, not the government, should decide just what to measure and how to do so.
The statement intentionally avoids the use of words like “comparability” and “standardization.”
While the administrations at both W&L and VMI have accepted the new requirements by SACS and the government, they agree that comparability should not become the end goal.
“Just across Virginia [schools] there are different kinds of missions,” said Knapp, citing a range of colleges including Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, VMI and W&L.
“I mean, it’s personal.”