Colleges in the U.S. have a fair amount of independence and autonomy. The amount of control the state has over higher education institutions can vary. Without the centralized authority of a federal government agency to oversee them, educational programs can vary considerably in quality.
Still, students and parents want to be sure the education offered by an institution is solid. To keep their enrollment numbers up, many schools seek out accreditation. This process can vary in length and complexity based on the accrediting association and the institution it's assessing.
What Is Two-Year College Accreditation?
Accreditation is a quality review process that higher education institutions use to verify their quality and detect improvement areas. With the Higher Education Act, as amended, Congress gave accrediting agencies more power to ensure the academic quality of institutions of higher education.
While these associations use their standards to measure quality, their power is advisory rather than legal. In other words, the educational programs or institutions they evaluate can continue to operate regardless of the agencies' decisions.
Accreditation is an ongoing process. Accrediting agencies periodically review institutions to confirm that their quality is still high. Under the U.S. Department of Education, accredited schools must receive a review every five years. While the Council for Higher Education Accreditation allows for a 10-year recognition period, it requires an interim report after five years.
What Are the Types of Accrediting Organizations?
Accrediting organizations consist of three different types — regional, national, and specialized. Regional organizations' standards apply to both non-profit and state-owned schools, most of which are non-profit and degree-granting. Each regional organization operates in a specific part of the U.S.:
- Middle States
- New England
- North Central
One agency is responsible for accrediting both four-year and two-year institutions in most regions. The exception is in the Western region, with two agencies covering higher education institutions in California, Hawaii, and the Pacific. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) accredits two-year schools. The WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) accredits four-year schools.
Generally, regional accreditation programs are more comprehensive than national programs. Religious programs and technical, vocational, or other for-profit institutions typically seek national accreditation. Specialized accreditation often occurs on a program- or department-only basis rather than accrediting an entire institution.
What Are the Benefits of Accreditation?
Pursuing and maintaining accreditation makes a higher education institution more appealing by:
- Ensuring the quality of education: Accrediting agencies develop standards to measure what they consider the qualities of a solid educational program. Their procedures determine if an educational program operates at a basic quality level.
- Standardizing education: Standardized courses and requirements ensure students that their education will give them the knowledge they'll need in their chosen careers. Standardization also ensures employers that a candidate has received an adequate education.
- Streamlining transfers: Students can more easily transfer course credits to a new institution with standardized courses. Students moving to four-year institutions can trust their credits will apply correctly.
What Are Community College Accreditation Requirements?
The agency awarding accreditation determines the requirements for a community college or other two-year institution. For example, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education uses seven standards when accrediting institutions. ACCJC has 21 requirements for higher education institutions, while the New England Commission of Higher Education has nine.
What Is the Accreditation Process for Two-Year Colleges?
The accreditation process for two-year colleges consists of five parts:
- Self-study or evaluation: During this phase, a two-year school reviews and compares itself to the agency's accreditation standards. The school should write a self-evaluation, which it can use to determine where it needs to improve. It should also send the evaluation to the accrediting association for review.
- Peer review: After a school completes the self-evaluation, an external evaluation begins. The external evaluators are volunteer faculty and administrators from other institutions. There are usually eight to 12 members on an evaluation team.
- Site visit: The external evaluators visit the school to assess its programs' quality and determine if the school meets the agency's standards.
- Decision: The evaluation team makes a decision about the school, deciding whether or not it merits accreditation. The evaluators may make specific recommendations if there are areas where the school needs to improve.
- Monitoring and continued improvement: After receiving accreditation, the school should work to continuously improve and maintain its standards. Implementing the evaluators' recommendations is a good first step to improvement. After several years, the accrediting agency will reassess the school to ensure it's maintaining the accreditation standards.
How Can You Streamline the Accreditation Process?
Accreditation is a complex, multi-year process for two-year schools. It's also ongoing, meaning that even once a school earns accreditation, it must still face periodic reevaluation. Fortunately, there are several things your institution can do to simplify the accreditation process:
- Centralize documents: The accreditation process can be paperwork-heavy. From self-evaluations to agency reviews, you'll have a lot to keep track of. Having a centralized location for all the documents associated with accreditation ensures that nothing gets lost in the shuffle. It also makes it easier for your team to access the paperwork they need when they need it.
- Communicate clearly: Communication is critical during the accreditation process, whether you're going through an initial accreditation or a review. Make sure everyone involved in the process has a clear idea of what's happening and when, as well as what's expected of them. Your team should know where the documents are stored and how to use any software program associated with accreditation.
- Use software: Software can simplify many things, including accreditation. A streamlined system helps you gather, reflect and act on assessment data.
- Keep information up-to-date: Since accreditation is ongoing, your school should do what it can to keep its information updated. Updating your data and performing regular self-evaluations will also help you detect any issues before the next accreditation review comes around.
Explore Our Accreditation Resources and Request a Demo
Watermark offers a centralized approach to the accreditation process. We designed our Planning & Self-Study software specifically for higher-education institutions, including two-year schools. This intuitive software system integrates with the technology your school already uses and works well with other Watermark solutions.
Request a demo today to learn more about how our Planning & Self-Study system can help your school achieve and maintain accreditation.
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