Her journey twists and turns through the splendor of gifted programs, expanding outward to an evaluator’s perspective and even looping in and around regulatory matters — it’s really quite remarkable.
Dr. Ross-Fisher’s current focus on accreditation brings us to this point, where we can tug at its purpose and try to understand why it matters so much.
What is the purpose of accreditation at an educational institution?
It comes down to quality assurance.
“Accreditation isn’t something we have to do. It’s something we should want to do,” she says.
Accreditation is a marker of quality education. To fully appreciate any award, badge or label, it must first be understood for what it represents. In higher education, there is a wide range of accreditations, many of which are given additional weight by being required from employers, national boards and organizations, and leading companies.
An increasingly popular term, student success, has many layers of its own. Every stakeholder group in an educational institution is (or at least should be) devoted to this as a primary outcome: high-quality educational experience which enables transformational contributions to society at large.
With accrediting bodies setting, managing, maintaining and updating quality standards from one year to the next, there is a sense of trust developed that students will be receiving the best available and most suitable education to help them on their way through life.
What are the most common challenges in obtaining accreditation?
Dr. Ross-Fisher reflects on her illustrious career to provide these insights:
Lack of funds/funding
Regulatory compliance is being positioned as a bonus rather than a necessity, which influences the order of priorities in allocating funding for resources.
Dr. Ross-Fisher recommends structuring regulatory matters appropriately into the budget because it can create avenues for more funding over time — wouldn’t you want to invest more in an option that met or surpassed your desired quality standards?
It certainly helps to have tools that can analyze high volumes of data in seconds, but Dr. Ross-Fisher warns that even a slight overdependence on quantitative data can skew outcomes and ultimate decisions. Bias is possible if only quantitative data is being analyzed and driving an institution’s story. There is so much rich data in an institution’s history, student experiences, staff contributions, and faculty expertise. We have to talk to each other to be able to tell our most comprehensive story.
As the world moves toward more integrated and efficient ways of working, every smart device becomes a liability. Student records, intellectual property and even trade secrets can be exposed to risk through the adoption of technology that is insufficiently understood or incorrectly configured or deployed. It can work against institutions if they experience a security breach during the evaluation process.
Dr. Ross-Fisher makes the case for using multiple vendors and ensuring that contingencies are in place: prioritize the student experience.
The pandemic brought a wave of resignations and retirements to educational institutions. As a result, a wealth of experience and situational response capabilities have exited the marketplace. The support needed for the enthusiastic yet extremely green decision-makers on boards and committees cannot be overstated.
Time for solutions
Tying together Dr. Ross-Fisher’s fragments of great advice is the notion that collaboration and shared responsibility will get us all over these (and more) hurdles.
“There’s no one magical potion that’s going to solve every challenge,” says Dr. Ross-Fisher. “If we all play a role and work together, we can move forward on more solid footing.”
Education is, at its core, about the quest for knowledge and understanding. It enables the delivery of effective solutions for some of the world’s most gripping challenges and hardships. In managing the student experience and obtaining the right quality identifiers, then, it would seem only sensible that an institution integrates its stakeholder groups’ engagement at every opportunity.
Training for stakeholder groups is one of the easiest and most direct ways to inspire a sense of shared responsibility. Make the time that is necessary for engaging with those responsible for your direct and indirect student experiences and also listen to what they have to say. Multidirectional feedback chains are a sign of organizational maturity and health so lean in and leverage this where you see it emerge.
How does the accreditation process actually work?
Too often it is assumed that the President or CEO of an accrediting body is the one calling all the shots. In reality, things look quite different.
There is a long and arduous process to motion for new metrics, methodologies and their respective relevance for not just the world of today, but of tomorrow as well. To understand the mechanics is to appreciate them, especially once you realize how many members have been involved in reaching decisions on behalf of the accrediting body.
The best approach to take is to see the accrediting bodies as partners on the journey to delivering a stimulating and rewarding student experience. You want students, staff, and faculty members to be proud of the transformation that all students commit to and hopefully complete.
Advice for your own accreditation journey
Prioritize continual improvement over continual compliance
Compliance is reactive and rooted in striving for success by prescribed standards that can limit innovation within your institution. Strive for continual improvement and evolve your training and empowerment activities around this and you’ll find your stakeholder groups will be more engaged and successful in engaging students.
It’s a surefire way to build toward new and unprecedented accreditations for your institute.
Get everyone involved
Cross-functional, multilayered and multidirectional communication is integral to achieving a healthy and well-integrated faculty and student body relationship. It becomes the foundation for all of your formal accreditation initiatives.
Even if your only way of involving more people is to ask for mock evaluation site visits, it can deepen and widen perspective internally and inspire innovation from members of your team that perhaps may not usually step forward with ideas.
Build in contingency plans
Depending on only one person to complete or facilitate any part of your accreditation engagement and assessment process is risky. Engage multiple people on all aspects and evaluate this during your mock site visits.
The aim here is to attach yourself, and everyone else, to the institution’s mission and to the very intentional and specific student populations you serve.
Everything in its place
Accreditation processes fulfill a specific purpose. This applies to each and every component within these processes too. If you understand its purpose you are more likely to address expectations appropriately and end up with greater success, instead of trying to ask an apple to be an orange, as it were.