From the university's viewpoint, most of the preparation for accreditation takes place well before the accreditation visit occurs. In the following, we describe one set of typical activities that a program would take to prepare itself for the accreditation process. Details may vary significantly from country to country and from program to program -- depending on the program specifics and the requirements and history of the accrediting body. To begin the accreditation process, the institution or program must accomplish the following:
Set or re-articulate the program’s goals and standards
Investigate existing accrediting bodies to determine the most appropriate accrediting body for the program
Contact the intended accrediting body for information about eligibility, criteria and accreditation mechanisms
Undergo a preliminary self-study and a study of the requirements of the intended accrediting body to determine feasibility of accreditation
Establish mechanisms to collect data on the program’s parameters and activities
Develop mechanisms to use data to reaffirm or reform program activities
Undergo a thorough self-study
Request an accreditation visit and review, by submitting a formal application to the intended accrediting body
Key Milestones in the Accreditation Process
For both quality assurance and accreditation purposes, an institution or a program should develop a Mission Statement. This statement defines the general goals that the institution/program has been charged with achieving. Here are some examples of mission statements:
Sometimes, a Mission Statement also includes the vision for the program or institution; however, many institutions create a separate Vision Statement, which articulates what the institution or program hopes to achieve, now and in the future. As an example, see the Vision Statement of Cornell University's Computer Science program.
These statements describe the objectives for teaching and learning. They should be well-defined, specific, and measurable, as they form the basis for the evaluation of the institution or program by the accrediting body. Below is a typical set of education objectives for a program.
"The Electrical Engineering Program seeks to provide education so that the graduates:
- acquire a high level of technical knowledge, skills, and awareness of current practice to enter the electrical engineering profession or to pursue graduate studies
- possess the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively
- understand the economical, societal and environmental impact and ethical and professional responsibilities of an electrical engineer
- appreciate the need for engaging in life-long learning so that they can move to the forefront of their profession"
Quality Assurance and Control
Many methods for quality control and accreditation in higher education are in use. Due to the great diversity of educational institutions and their missions, the same set of standards cannot fit all institutions. However, an institution or program can show (in more ways than one) that it has established sound goals and objectives, developed an effective strategy for achieving them, provided adequate educational resources for the task, and it possesses the means of measuring the success of educational outcomes. Quality Assurance and Quality Control involve a set of procedures conducted by an academic institution or department to ensure that programs meet their prescribed criteria and the needs of its stakeholders, including current and prospective students, parents, teachers, and employers. These are usually internal processes that are conducted on a regular basis. Some tasks include deciding which specific standards the educational programs or service must meet, determining the extent of quality control actions, collecting real-world data, and conducting periodic evaluations of outcomes against the objectives and goals of the program.
The self study is the foundation of most accreditation processes, and is conducted by the program itself (though some programs have been known to hire external consultants for help). The self study is often the most important outcome of the overall accreditation process, as it provides a thorough insider view of all aspects of the educational program, services, and facilities. This view is the best basis for addressing quality issues. The self-study involves a comprehensive data collection and data analysis of the educational offerings, curricula, facilities, faculty, staff, budgets and other resources, infrastructure, the student body and the school’s environment. The self-study report must be completed before the accreditation visit can begin, and it serves the external evaluation team to guide its activities and queries. Moreover, the self study document is used by the evaluators to communicate with the program prior to the visit in order to review specific issues and address evaluator observations and questions.
The on-site visit typically lasts 2-3 days and focuses on issues that cannot be directly learned from the self-study – such as the way facilities are organized and their state of maintenance, morale of students and faculty, and samples of student work in various courses. At the end of the visit, the team usually provides the program with a preliminary report of its findings and conclusions.
There is considerable correspondence between the program and the accrediting body after the visit. This correspondence includes drafts of team evaluation of the program, and information from the program on activities taken after the visit to address matters raised through the preliminary findings. The process concludes by a formal action by the accrediting body. Such action may range from a decision not to accredit the program to a decision to accredit the program for the maximum period allowed by the accrediting body’s standards. Between these two extremes there may be requests for written attestation by the evaluated program that certain issues were addressed, or an interim visit may be arranged to ascertain that identified problems were rectified. Some accrediting bodies would not revoke the accreditation of a previously-accredited program until an additional detailed process of re-evaluation was conducted over a period of time.