Accreditation Process: 4 Year Countdown

Managing the accreditation process for your university requires an enormous amount of effort and preparation. You already know that. But, what your team of colleagues may not know is that this group effort demands an all-hands-on-deck approach that, when done right, reaps great rewards for everyone. A successful accreditation provides your university with the ongoing benefits of federal student aid, increased research dollars, grants, accredited degrees and resources that can help everyone involved. And when it comes to planning for accreditation, the more resources to help support it, the better.

In order to allow ample time for planning and execution, we recommend starting four years out from the accreditation year, as most accreditors require at least three years of data when submitting documentation for accreditation. And while for each year, there are important tasks that take precedence above others, there’s one most important task for you at every stage of the accreditation process: educate and support your colleagues. The entire process is an opportunity to shift the culture around assessment and accreditation at your institution. Sounds daunting? It can be, if you don’t have a comprehensive plan.

To help you know what you need to do and when you need to do it, we want to start at year four and work toward year one. At this pace, your greatest asset will be having time on your side.

 

The Accreditation Process – Important Tasks Four Years from Accreditation

The most crucial steps during this year are 1) develop and implement a plan for collecting assessment and accreditation data and 2) share the plan with all involved staff and administrators.

  1. Develop and implement a plan for collecting assessment and accreditation data. A plan for collecting data should include very specific details to indicate what you are going to collect, from whom and when. We suggest you create a calendar or table that details everything you will be using in your report, down to the granular details of who, what, when and which standard it supports.
  2. Cast the vision, share the plan with all involved staff and administrators. After creating your outline or calendar detailing the evidence you’ll need, plan a meeting to cast the bigger picture perspective and share the plan with colleagues. Rather than focusing on individual tasks and deadlines, offer resources that will encourage their cooperation and involvement by answering questions about accreditation, such as why you do it, why it’s important and what resources are available to help everyone complete this work.

 

Important Tasks Three Years from Accreditation

Your plan should already be in process, as you continue to work with faculty and administrators to get what you need, in the correct format, on or before the deadline. Be sure to send reminders before and on submission deadline dates and check evidence as it comes in to make sure it is high quality. You don’t want to discover you have useless data at the end of the year! At year three, your most crucial steps are to 1) collect high quality, consistent data and evidence, 2) make sure you understand all of the standards from your accreditor, 3) assemble committees and 4) establish processes.

    1. Collect high quality, consistent data and evidence. To make collection easier, we recommend you find champions and set 3M outcomes: Meaningful (important to the person), Measurable (measurable with concrete data), Manageable (scope and number of outcomes being measured are manageable). Your champions will be faculty and administrators who are familiar with assessment in higher education and are supportive of the effort. As mentors, pair them with those who are new to the process of accreditation. Also, you can make everyone’s life easier and more enjoyable by insisting that everyone set 3M outcomes.
    2. Make sure you understand all of the standards from your accreditor. Standards can change or be difficult to understand. Don’t assume you’ll be okay if you skip over the tough parts. Be sure to decipher and address your accreditors’ standards. Take the time to find out what each standard means and incorporate it into your overall plan. Have questions? Ask colleagues or contact your accreditor liaison.
    3. Assemble committees. We recommend you assemble the committees that will help write, edit and manage the accreditation process around the end of year three. Assign specific roles and tasks to each member of the team; this will make it easier to stay organized and hold all team members accountable.

    4. Establish processes. Your project management system is critical for ensuring that responses and evidence are collected, deadlines are met and work is saved. Having a process for this will make the work this year go more smoothly. Be sure to send out assignments and reminders of who is answering specific accreditation questions and how they will submit their responses. An assessment and accreditation software platform, such as Weave, makes sure everyone understands the settings, saving, and collaboration features.

 

Important Tasks Two Years from Accreditation

The top priorities two years away from accreditation are to 1) complete an assessment of compliance for each standard, 2) write the report, 3) share report for community review and feedback and 4) submit your report to an editor. Your ultimate goal is to have a complete rough draft of the report by the end of this year, a full year before your submission(!). 

  1. Complete an assessment of compliance for each standard (as listed on your outline for the entire report). This assessment of compliance essentially asks, “If the visiting team came to campus right now, where are we on compliance and where do we need to improve?” You can ask whoever is responsible for each area to assign a grade based on your institution’s current reality. The answers will alert you to any gaps you face and give you time to make changes over the next two years. This could include creating or refining current policies, changing curriculum or modifying assessment measures. 
  2. Write the report. Now you are ready to write and assemble all the documentation. This is a good time to inform the entire campus community where you are in the accreditation planning process and that they can expect further requests for data or evidence, and that a helpful attitude will be greatly appreciated. 
  3. Share the report. To provide an opportunity for feedback, once the report has been written host “brown bag” lunch sessions for anyone to drop-in and provide feedback, ask questions and make suggestions. 
  4. Submit your report to an editor. Once you complete the community feedback process, you’ll need to determine if you’ll edit the document or if you’ll hire an editor to go through the report. Try to find someone who has experience with accreditation editing and is familiar with the process. Their main goals will be to 1) revise the narrative to ensure a consistent voice, 2) check links, and 3) make sure all evidence is included.

Important Tasks One Year from Accreditation

Your report is done! What a relief! Now the focus shifts to your most important task of planning for the accreditation visit. Just as with the report, the key to planning and executing a fail-safe visit is organization and attention to detail.

Planning for the accreditation visit. Determine how many visitors you will have and for how long. Then begin planning for the finer details, including: lodging, transportation, meals, booking all necessary rooms (and back-up rooms) for meetings, and reserving technology. Create an itinerary and schedule to give to the visitors, as well as to all university officials involved in the visit. Prepare the entire campus of faculty and staff to answer questions from the accreditation team by supplying them with essential information prior to the visit. And, most importantly, be prepared with plenty of snacks and refreshments.

 

After the Visit

Once the accreditation team has left, ignore the temptation to immediately start analyzing what went wrong. Instead, celebrate! Focus on the wins and what went well. After celebrating, then start determining your next steps (while it’s still fresh) to reap the benefits of continuous improvement. If you received a monitoring, non-compliance or probation notice, take a deep breath and know that you will be okay. Gather your team and create a plan to develop and demonstrate your institution’s commitment and execution of that standard. If you didn’t receive any sanctions, congratulations! Start reflecting on how the process went, and with feedback from all involved, start creating the playbook for ongoing assessment and accreditation.

Look for ways to keep assessment and accreditation fresh in faculty and administrators’ minds. Set the goal and expectation of assessing every year for the next 10 years, rather than waiting to begin assessment again in six years. This is the perfect time to create a cultural shift.

 

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If you enjoyed this content and would like to learn more about the processes and challenges that come with each year, please download our more in-depth overlook in our guidebook, The Four-Year Countdown Guide to Successful Accreditation.

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