Processes and Standards
Accreditation of higher education institutions in the United States is a voluntary and self-regulatory mechanism of the higher education community. It plays a significant role in fostering public confidence in the educational enterprise, in maintaining standards, in enhancing institutional effectiveness, and in improving higher education. It also provides the basis on which colleges and universities can be assured that accredited institutions have complied with a common set of requirements and standards.
By choosing to seek and maintain accreditation, an institution agrees to submit its operations and policies to periodic review and reaffirmation in an intense, multi-year process of self-assessment, report-writing, and campus visits by reviewers from other similar institutions. Only those which pass this scrutiny can continue to claim their status as accredited institutions.
Being accredited is essential for colleges and universities, and indirectly for the students who attend them, because:
- accreditation is one of the key standards institutions use in deciding whether or not to accept academic transfer credits from another institution;
- being enrolled in an accredited institution is a necessary precondition for students to apply for state and/or federal financial aid; and
- accreditation is a requirement for many types of federal funding and grants available to the institutions themselves.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) is the officially recognized accrediting agency for higher education institutions in 11 states in the southeastern United States and in Latin America. Its mission is to ensure that appropriate and high quality educational practices are followed by the institutions it accredits.
SACSCOC's original adoption of the Principles of Accreditation in 2001 introduced significant changes in its approach to accreditation. While it had previously emphasized a uniform set of standards which every institution was expected to measure up to in exactly the same ways, SACSCOC's new approach looks at the quality of institutions within the framework of their own mission and goals and whether or not their responses to crucial institutional issues are consistent with their stated mission. In the few years this approach has been enforced, SACSCOC has prompted institutions coming up for re-accreditation (Reaffirmation is actually now the preferred term.) within its region to refocus on the notion of institutional effectiveness and find new and better ways to create and sustain campus environments that enhance student learning.
The additional fine-tuning reflected in the 2007 Interim Edition of the Principles of Accreditation of this document reiterates the importance of these changes and serves to illustrate SACSCOC's own commitment to ongoing assessment and its willingness to engage in continuous improvement.
There are four paramount concepts on which the success of the accreditation process depends.
- One is the belief that the accreditation of institutions should be be conducted by peer reviewers, a process whereby institutional effectiveness and quality are professionally judged by peers from institutions of higher education whose expertise and experience are essential to their ability to exercise professional judgment.
- A second concept is institutional integrity and the assumption that all information disseminated by an institution seeking accreditation is truthful, accurate, and complete and that all of its dealings with its constituencies and the public are honest and forthright.
- A third concept is the institution's commitment to quality enhancement and continuous improvement.
- The last paramount concept is the institution's focus on student learning and its effectiveness in supporting and enhancing student learning.
The accreditation process also assumes that all participants in the process will conduct their responsibilities with integrity, objectivity, fairness, and confidentiality. It is also based on the expectation that accredited institutions have made a commitment to:
- Comply with the Core Requirements and Comprehensive Standards contained in the Principles and other SACSCOC policies and procedures.
- Enhance the quality of its educational programs.
- Focus on student learning.
- Ensure a "culture of integrity" in all of its operations.
- Recognize the centrality of peer review to the effectiveness of the accreditation process.