Accreditation: A view from the other side

By Tabitha Whissemore

Community college presidents who serve on accreditation commissions discuss the benefits of involvement.

The accreditation process isn’t something college presidents exactly look forward to. It’s lengthy and involved and can be disruptive. Seeing the process from the other side, though, can provide a new perspective.

Michael Chipps, president of Nebraska’s Northeast Community College, has served as a peer reviewer for the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) for about 25 years and was elected to the HLC board in 2011. His first site visit was in 1994 and he was “overwhelmed with the magnitude and impact of what I was about to do.”

“There is nothing like being at the scene when an institution is fully engaged in the accreditation process,” Chipps says. “It is surreal and unlike anything that formal education offers a student. It is like observing open heart surgery without being the actual patient…knowing full well that your institution will someday be on the operating table.”

Since that first site visit, Chipps has gained greater insights about his college and about accreditation, such as what criteria was used and why the process seemed so disruptive to colleges who were about to be visited by accreditors.

Understanding the process

Peter Grant Jordan, president of the Tarrant County College’s South Campus in Texas, serves on the board of trustees of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS-COC). His involvement has helped him better understand the rigorous accreditation process in his region and the reasons for that rigor.

“I’ve learned that SACS is there to really help institutions be honest about the things they promised,” Jordan says.

The role of accrediting commissioners is to “help give guidance to institutions to achieve effectiveness and continuous improvement,” says Linda Thomas-Glover, president of Virginia’s Eastern Shore Community College. She has served on a SACS-COC peer review team since 1991. Accreditation, she says, is about “making adjustments to continue on the path to success.”

That knowledge can help presidents when their own colleges are involved in the accreditation process. After taking part in numerous peer reviews, she’s become mindful of the things that are commonly cited and has now found her institution “years ahead” in preparing for review.

Alice Marie Jacobs is president of Danville Area Community College (DACC) in Illinois. She’s been at DACC for 17 years and has been a peer reviewer with HLC for most of that time.

The “driving force” for her involvement? “I knew my college would be engaged in the process, so it was something I wanted to know more about,” Jacobs says. “It’s been a huge benefit for our college.”

Reviewers get “ideas of how other colleges are operated and successful initiatives other colleges have,” Jacobs says. There’s also an opportunity to learn from seeing initiatives and practices that aren’t so successful.

Advice: Get involved

For new community college presidents going through the accreditation process for the first time, there’s plenty of advice.

One piece of advice that was echoed: Get involved.

But for those who can’t become involved right now, though, becoming familiar with the process early is crucial, according to Jordan.

“Don’t think about the accreditation process as something you do once every 10 years. If you do, you’re going to be in trouble,” Jordan warns. Instead, use the guidelines “as a blueprint for how you operate the campus.”

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Tabitha Whissemore

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.