John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

A Winning Combination

My lifetime professional objective has been to increase the perceived importance that campuses assign to beginning college students and their success. In the past decade, the regional accreditors have handed me a gift from the gods to push this aspiration to the next level of attainment.

This blog is occasioned by the fact that I spent the past weekend in Chicago for the 5th year in a row for the annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission. In spite of the Great Recession, about 3500 higher educators convened for sessions, interaction, sharing of intelligence, and, believe it or not, help from their regional accreditor.

When I was a younger faculty member and in my formative years, my impressions of regional accreditors were shaped entirely by the one that accredited colleges and universities in my own region: SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The mere mention of the acronym was enough to cause a multitude of potential reactions: increased heart rates, panic, aversion, boredom, you name it. While we may have held many different views, one thing that all educators agreed on was that the reaccreditation process had everything to do with compliance, bean counting, and a monumental in generating reams of paper, literally, that would eventually end up on the metaphorical shelf and lead to absolutely nothing. Those days are gone.

Fast forward to the present, and the accreditors are the biggest force for change in the academy. They are no longer about bean counting, but about a new kind of accountability: for student learning. And you can’t achieve that if you don’t engage in “assessment”. And it isn’t enough just to be doing assessment; you have to be using the results of assessment to bring about educational change.

To encourage campuses to take this seriously and to reward them for their efforts, at least three of the regionals have adopted procedures for reaffirmation of accreditation that allow a campus to pick a “special emphasis”, study it, come up with an action plan to improve it, and then implement the plan, before the visiting team comes to review. These three are the Higher Learning Commission, the Middle States Association, and the Southern Association. Hurray for them.

And this is the “winning combination” that I referred to in the title of this blog. Now we have the chance to get rewarded for something we don’t have to do by doing something we have to do, i.e. the latter being getting our accreditation reaffirmed and the former being a special improvement focus on the beginning college experience.

Because there is no higher priority for any campus than reaffirming its accreditation, by definition then, any focused improvement effort that is linked to reaccreditation is also going to be very high priority and will have to be resourced in order to demonstrate institutional commitment. What a wonderful opportunity then for advocates like me of improving the beginning college experience. Finally, we have a powerful new lever for change, investment and imprimatur.

Moral of the story: engage with senior colleagues on your campus who will be involved in discussing a focus for your institution’s next reaffirmation of accreditation. See if you can’t link that in some way to the first-year improvement efforts on your campus. This is not rocket science at all. All you have to do is push the idea forward.

Since 2005, I have had the privilege to work with eight different institutions in the Higher Learning Commission region, all of whom used my non-profit organization’s Foundations of Excellence process as a “special emphasis” self study for HLC. This has been a very exciting process to observe and support, and I commend it to my readers as a powerful new way to drive change towards a more influential first year on your campus.

-John Gardner

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