While writing an accreditation report is challenging, many will confess the on-site visit intimidates them even more. It doesn’t have to! Dr. Josephine Welsh has participated at many levels of accreditation, and shared her insights in her webinar.
The Visiting Team
The most critical aspect of this part of the accreditation process is actually empathy – understanding the team will make for much less work and a lot more efficiency. Fortunately this is pretty easy, because the team is comprised of people just like you! They are your peers, and they have a job like yours that they still perform while working on your visit and report.
They are helping you make a case to the accreditor; it is their responsibility to show to what extent you are fulfilling your mission in their report, and you can help by telling your story so they really understand your institution.
How can you best help the team?
- Know the standards
- Read the criteria prior to collecting evidence/writing narrative
- Identify the process at your institution
- Explain how those processes work
- Provide the evidence, which also shows how you’re using things (like a template)
- Provide examples of the items in actual use
Your Report to the Team
Tackling the report works best with backwards design and the end in mind. What does the visiting team need and want that will use time efficiently and tell your story?
The steps below are a good place to begin:
1. Go read the last report your institution submitted and note findings. Be sure to also read between the lines – are there instances where you were not cited, but the reviewer specifically mentioned certain plans for the next reviewer to check?
- The purpose of the current report – is it a reaffirmation, monitoring, etc.? Pay close attention to the directions.
- The possible outcomes of the visit and what actions the accreditor can take based on the report (accept, defer, reject).
- The writing team leads by standard or section
- The support team (IT, IE, marketing)
- The compliance/ website team
- Instruct the teams to complete 1-2 above
4. Encourage team leads to request bite-size service from others rather than large tasks.
5. Prepare to gather evidence:
- Create a repository with instructions.
- Establish an inclusive and realistic evidence gathering process that includes many people.
6. Document meetings and campus involvement.
7. Establish a communications plan for campus that should include mission, process, and specifics.
- Involve enough people. Otherwise, you WILL miss available evidence and could get cited.
- Ensure that workloads are appropriate. Spreading the bulk of the work among only a few will result in confusion, procrastination, and a lot of questions late in the process.
- Collaborate. Often on a complicated standard it is tempting to send out a survey. However, if many team leads are sending surveys it will lead to fatigue and low engagement.
- Touch base in a flipped format. Often accreditation meetings involve many people and can therefore become quite long. Recording a quick video with an update and what’s needed prior to a meeting can make the actual event focused less on process and more on reporting.
- Draft narrative the way the reviewer needs to use it. They are responsible for determining if you have a process, if it works, and if not what is being done, completed with evidence of each. If you can write with this in mind they can quickly find what they need and draft efficiently.
Your lead accreditation team will be involved at many levels, but initially there are a few things they can focus on to get everyone off to a good start. After reviewing the past report and preparing to draft the new, they should flag anything that is a missing process and ensure the right group locates or creates it. The lead team also typically manages communication at all levels (cabinet, administration, faculty, staff, and community, as well as meetings with the other teams outlined above). Finally, they should make certain the website is being tested for probable searches and errors. If possible, managing resources to create summaries and one-click-to-evidence is a good idea, too.
Accreditation reports are huge, both to compose and to read. It can be overwhelming to know where to begin. While it is advisable to tackle areas you know are weak so you have more time to improve them, you should also pay attention to any changes from your accreditor since the last report, as well as what standards are being monitored more as a whole for your region.
This list includes often-cited standards that are usually not difficult to fix.
- Federal compliance
- Faculty credentials – how will you prove they align with courses taught?
- Strategic Plan – be sure to include KPIs/results from current or previous ones
- Job placement data
- Advisory boards
- Syllabi – Where are they housed? Are the templates being used? Do they include outcomes?
- Budget – How is it decided and is it inclusive? Is it allocated according to strategic planning and student learning?
- Accreditation page with current status
- Graduation and retention rates, student learning outcomes
- Current organization chart
- No old, outdated, or broken links
- Easy to find net price calculator, tuition and fees, student complaints process/resources, handbooks/policies
- Pages on equity and diversity, data by demographic
Report Pitfalls: Too much evidence or disconnected narrative. The team’s job is already large, and wading through extra evidence will be frustrating. Select evidence that applies to the standard, shows the process (a blank template), and includes an example (a completed template). Narrative should relate to and reference the evidence, including addressing and shortcomings and plans for addressing those. Keep in mind – what will help the reviewers understand your institution and write a genuine report?
Again, think backwards – what does the team need to help them navigate your report, get the most out of a visit, and then write their own report? This is your chance to really share what is unique about your institution.
Practice don’t panic: Practice makes perfect, right? There are several things you can do to prepare your campus for the big visit.
- Invite the community to attend meetings to share specific insights. Explain beforehand what will be asked at which meetings. If you know a faculty or staff member or group of students that have wonderful things to share on a topic, invite them to the relevant meeting.
- Conduct a mock visit, even with campus resources. Use the mock sessions to reflect and prepare for the real thing.
- Review areas of former reports, both commendations and areas likely to be the focus of attention.
- Explain possible outcomes of the visit to stakeholders, especially the resources that would be needed to respond to citations.
- Remind everyone that the goal is to demonstrate we are all trying to fulfill the mission of the institution.
- Use technology, especially if it is a virtual visit. Using two platforms, such as Zoom and Teams, can help. One can be used for everyone and the other for your team to communicate during meetings internally.
- Schedule people where they are most needed – reserve writing leads for clarification questions and administrators for governance. Not everyone has to be in every meeting – focus on genuine participants.
What the Visiting Team Needs and How You Can Provide It
- Site Team Must:
- Your Team Can Provide It By:
- Verify processes
- Inviting committees
- Verify culture
- Inviting faculty and staff
- Write examples
- Provide web pages, stories
- Attend evidence meetings
- Gather attendees lists by titles
- Hear from students
- Include student aides
- Focus and remain alert
- Prepare food, supplies, IT, nametags
- Use time wisely
- Use tech and make individual schedules
- Establish framework
- Provide framework: What is the most important thing you want them to know about your institution?
6 Mistakes That Will Probably Get You Cited
- You did not frame the report/visit according to the unique qualities of your institution.
- You provided lots of verbiage and blank forms with little evidence of process or use.
- You didn’t follow the directions: familiarize yourself with the language of the agency by attending conference trainings, contacting liaison, reviewing the website, reading a sample report, or volunteering to review.
- You did not answer the question/write to the standard.
- You provided your goals, data, and use of data for continuous improvement, but none of it aligned.
- You didn’t make it easy for them to find things and understand your institution.
While there’s no getting around the amount of work and stress involved in an accreditation report and visit, we hope you got some valuable ideas to make it less so. Having empathy and seeing the reviewers as part of your team goes a long way in creating a genuine environment of transparency, continuous improvement, and pride.