In a small, rural town, there is an agricultural college that has been locally hailed for its successes for nearly a century. As the only higher education institution within an hour’s drive, it serves to educate local students who come from strong agricultural backgrounds to make the best and most innovative farmers of tomorrow. With nearly every hometown student attending the college, the information taught there specifically serves the community.
Several counties away lies a research-based university. It is, by far, the largest higher education institution in the state and one of the largest in the country. Their research has led to a multitude of new pharmaceutical advancements and countless new methodologies that are being used daily in physical therapy facilities across the globe. This is a top-tier institution for students seeking a degree in medicine and the university proudly serves thousands of students from the entire region.
How can both of these institutions provide the same standard of academic quality? Their missions and purposes are completely different, as well as the needs and interests of their subsequent student body.
This is why institutional autonomy in reference to educational quality is crucial for higher education. This is the mission of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and Dr. Cynthia Jackson Hammond, President of CHEA. CHEA works to ensure institutions can tell their own story of how they are achieving excellence in alignment with their mission and the students they serve.
Compliance with the Department of Education
On the federal level, the Department of Education has standards in place for compliance. Yet, these mandates are fiscally-focused. They are in place to ensure an educational institution is properly managing and monitoring federal funding and providing adequate support through financial aid for their students.
CHEA’s focus is centered around educational quality.
“It s not a one-or-the-other scenario with CHEA and the Department of Education,” Dr. Jackson Hammond says. “Both organizations serve a different function and purpose.”
Some institutions are not eligible for federal funding. Other institutions are eligible and receive federal funding, yet they still desire the gold seal of approval from accreditors, who are accredited by CHEA, as evidence that they can manage federal funds while maintaining high-quality academic viability.
“That quality is ascertained by the process of accreditation. We protect that accreditation and advocate for the institution to do their own self-evaluation about what is and isn’t working and how to move the bar so every student can experience a great deal of success.” – Dr. Jackson Hammond
Institutions are Our Members
CHEA serves as an advocacy non-profit organization that accredits the accreditors, but institutions are also a focus and integral part of CHEA. Institutions are CHEA members too.
“We verify the accreditor can enter an institution and work with them to ensure academic quality and integrity are maintained,” Dr. Jackson Hammond says.
CHEA has accredited over 68 institutional and programmatic organizations. With CHEA’s accreditation, institutions can rest assured their accreditors are fit for the work they are performing having gone through a similar process themselves to also become accredited — thus ensuring the institution is backed by an accreditor that advocates for student success, quality education, and academic freedom.
“Every institution wants to be able to say that their students are successful and families sending their children to the institutions have been made fully comfortable by the activities and experiences their students have.” – Dr. Jackson Hammond
A Higher Standard
The standards programs and institutions respond to for accreditation are created and set by peers. So while accreditors hold programs and institutions to a high standard – it is really that we, the academic community, have high expectations for ourselves. This includes those working in the field as well as faculty and staff from institutions who also go through the accreditation process and serve as peer reviewers. Institutions choose to respond to the standards, to share how they are currently providing students with quality academic experiences while also identifying how they will continue to evolve. Both entities do this to ensure they are bettering themselves for their students, staff, and families.
“Any accrediting organization that wants to go into an institution and hold them to a standard set of outcomes and expectations should have the same standards for themselves.” – Dr. Jackson Hammond
CHEA’s list of 24 standards they ask of accrediting organizations aims at not only collecting a narrative but also concrete evidence that educational quality standards are being met. With a strong focus on accountability, CHEA’s goal is to ensure accreditors are holding themselves to the highest standards before entering an institution. Furthermore, CHEA wants their accreditors to never settle for success, but to land on a continuous journey of bettering their organization.
“The expectation is that we want institutions and programs not to say ‘I have arrived.’ Instead, they should acknowledge they have arrived at this point, then ask what else they can do better.” – Dr. Jackson Hammond
The student roster of today is much different than it was thirty years ago. Students are entering institutions with new expectations, demeanors and, most importantly, different areas of interest. With a rapidly evolving student population, it is crucial for higher education institutions to prepare in advance for this, not try to follow suit. CHEA ensures accreditation organizations are capable of ensuring institutions are meeting the needs of students.
Interested in learning more? Listen to our full conversation with Dr. Cynthia Jackson Hammond, where we discuss CHEA’s formation, its purpose, the changing academic landscape and more. Listen on Google Podcasts, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.