The University of Arizona
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The Accreditation Process

What is Accreditation?

Accreditation is the process used in U. S. education to ensure that schools, postsecondary institutions, and other education providers meet, and maintain, minimum standards of quality and integrity regarding academics, administration, and related services. It is a voluntary process based on the principle of academic self-governance. Voluntary accreditation has two fundamental purposes: quality assurance and institutional and program improvement. Both the federal and state governments recognize accreditation as the mechanism by which institutional and programmatic legitimacy and capacity are measured. Being accredited has public value and benefit; it confirms to parents, students, and employers that the institution meets minimum educational standards.

The five key features of accreditation are: self-study, peer review, site visit, action (judgment) by accrediting organization, and ongoing external review. Accreditation includes the following steps that must be followed in order for it to be a legitimate process:

  1. The accrediting association establishes, and periodically refines, its standards and policies to be followed by all successful candidates for accreditation or re-accreditation.
  2. An institution faculty petitions the association for membership as an accredited entity, or is notified, if it is already a member, that the time for re-accreditation has come.
  3. The institution begins a process of preparing and conducting an intensive and thorough self-study led by a designated committee of faculty and staff and following guidelines set forth by the accrediting association.
  4. The accrediting association selects a team of external academic and administrative experts from other similar institutions or programs, and this team reviews the self-study report and then visits the institution for an on-site inspection, following the association's inspection and evaluation guidelines.
  5. The evaluation team issues a report recommending for or against accreditation or re-accreditation, and enumerating any conditions that need to be met before full positive approval may be given.
  6. The accrediting association's members vote on the status of the candidate or member based on the evaluation team's report, and the association places the name and information about successful candidates and re-accredited members in the next annual edition of its official approval list.

The Secretary of Education is empowered by law to recognize accrediting associations for the purpose of approving institutions that are permitted to participate in federal student financial assistance programs. Federal law, however, only allows approval of associations that accredit free-standing institutions. The reason for this limitation is that the sole purpose of federal recognition is to ensure that only accredited institutions receive public funds and individual programs and faculties do not handle student assistance money - the parent institution does. The federal government does not itself accredit any institutions. It only recognizes certain accrediting activities conducted by private accrediting associations. The private associations receive funding from the annual dues of its members, support from sponsoring associations, fees paid by institutions or programs for an accreditation visit, conferences and meetings and, in some instances, grants from external sources.
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Regional Accrediting: Higher Learning Commission, North Central Association

Regional accrediting associations accredit institutions that are located within defined groups of states and territories. While regional associations inspect and approve all types of institutions, they particularly serve traditional institutions that offer degree programs in a comprehensive range of academic subjects, such as universities and colleges. Legitimacy as a nationally recognized regional accrediting association for postsecondary education is accomplished by meeting the standards for membership in the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and/or the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA).

The University of Arizona is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA). Founded in 1895, NCA is one of six regional accrediting associations in the U.S. Through its commissions, NCA accredits educational institutions in the 19-state North Central region: Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Wyoming. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

As an institutional accrediting body, the HLC evaluates an entire organization and accredits it as a whole. It assesses formal educational activities and also evaluates governance and administration, financial stability, admissions and student personnel services, resources, student academic achievement, organizational effectiveness, and relationships with outside constituencies.

The Commission relies on three primary documents to record its relationship with an affiliated organization.

  1. An official action letter from a member of the Commission staff (typically the executive director) explaining the action taken on behalf of the Commission. This letter may be disclosed by the organization.
  2. A Statement of Affiliation Status (SAS) that describes the affiliated status of an organization. Every Commission action requires the updating and potential revision of the SAS. The SAS may be disclosed by the Commission and by the organization.
  3. An Organization Profile (OP) that the Commission creates largely from data reported by the organization on the Annual Report on Organizational Information and Operational Indicators. The OP may be disclosed by the Commission and by the organization.

The HLC's current Criteria for Accreditation were approved for use effective January 1, 2005. These criteria fall under five general headings:

  1. Mission and integrity
  2. Preparing for the future
  3. Student learning and effective teaching
  4. Acquisition, discovery, and application of knowledge
  5. Engagement and service

The NCA's Higher Learning Commission conducts more than 100 comprehensive evaluation visits and about 70 focused visits (return visits to assure that concerns have been addressed) annually. In about 70 percent of the comprehensive visits and 45 percent of the focused visits, the visiting teams recommend that institutions file additional progress reports, monitoring reports, or contingency reports and/or submit to an additional focused visit.
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Accreditation at The University of Arizona

The University of Arizona (UA) is participating in the traditional accreditation review format. The process of re-accreditation should be broad-based and inclusive of all internal and external University constituencies. The four key features of the traditional accreditation review format are:

  1. Self-study: The UA prepares written documentation of compliance based on The Higher Learning Commission's criteria and standards. Each working team will be assigned an area of focus based on the five criteria listed above.
  2. Peer review and site visit: Accreditation review is conducted primarily by a visiting team of faculty and administrators from other higher education institutions.
  3. Action (judgment) of accrediting organization: Once the site visit is complete and the visiting team reports to the HLC, the HLC of NCA makes its decision about the accredited status of the UA.
  4. Monitoring and oversight: All institutions are reviewed over time cycles that may vary from every few years to every ten years. The UA's most recent accreditation cycles have been ten years in length. From time-to-time interim reports or updates on progress have been required.

The University's Executive Support Team started work in July, 2008. The duties of the Executive Support Team include:

  • Working closely with the UA's designated representative at the HLC to assure that all campus accreditation efforts are acceptable and appropriate
  • Developing the self-study calendar and timetable
  • Determining the fit between the self-study process and the self-study report, and how they will meet both the Commission's and the UA's needs
  • Creating the structure of committees and work groups and who will serve on them
  • Developing a working outline that may become the table of contents of the self-study report

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The University of Arizona's Self-Study Process/Report

The self-study process should:

  • Clarify and fulfill the University's stated mission as a premier land-grant university
  • Be of long-term benefit to the University
  • Demonstrate that the UA is academically as well as fiscally strong and anticipates the challenges of the next decade
  • Ensure broad-based participation by representatives of all University constituencies as the basis for a comprehensive evaluation
  • Provide a brief evaluative profile of the University including special qualities and distinctive programs
  • Summarize significant changes that have occurred since the last comprehensive evaluation in 2000
  • Briefly summarize the University's accreditation history
  • Evaluate the thoroughness of the self-study process
  • State the University's understanding of and response to the major issues identified by the evaluation team in 2000
  • Provide an explicit evaluation of how the University fulfills each of the Criteria for Accreditation through meeting the stated Core Components

The Steering Committee is responsible for guiding the self-study process, consulting with the co-directors, and providing feedback as the working team reports are pulled together into a single self-study. Once the self-study draft is shared with all University constituents, an external editor will be engaged to create a final draft that reads well and speaks with a single voice. This final product will be published and distributed broadly prior to the site visit team arriving on campus during the fall of 2010.
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Site Visit

The HLC will name a site visit team that will normally spend three days on campus during the fall of 2010. This team will consist of faculty and administrators who are familiar with both our type of university and with accreditation. The Executive Support Team will assure that all documentation that may be desired is compiled both in hard copy and in soft format. Arrangements will be made for team meeting and computer support rooms both on campus and in the team's hotel.

The visit includes both an opening session and an Exit Session. The evaluation team typically starts the first full day of the on-campus evaluation by meeting the President and anyone else he invites. This meeting is more than a social occasion; it establishes the tenor of the visit and clarifies for the team any unique contexts in which the visit might be conducted. The team is prepared to pose questions, and the President is expected to answer them. The team may also use this meeting to confirm appointments with members of the administration, faculty, staff, and governing board. The team will then disperse across both Main Campus and the University's other campuses (UA South and Phoenix Medical Campus).

The team chair usually meets with the President at least once daily to summarize the progress of the team and to learn if some constituencies of the University still expect to talk to the team. The President should feel free to ask for time with the chair at any point in the visit, particularly if there are any concerns emerging about the conduct of the visit. A one-to-one meeting of the team chair and the President, during which the chair outlines the nature of recommendations the team will be making, typically precedes the Exit Session.

The Exit Session again engages the team with the President. The President usually invites others - such as administrative colleagues and the steering committee - to attend. During that session, the team chair summarizes the team's findings and shares the team's planned recommendation for affiliation status. The Exit Session is conducted orally, with the team chair speaking on behalf of the team. The team chair informs the organization of forthcoming opportunities to offer corrections to misstatement of facts and to choose the appropriate review process for the next phase of the evaluation. If the President and/or other administrators believe that the team has been misinformed or has misunderstood something important, they say so; and the team should double-check the facts that have been questioned. Normally, the team departs directly after the Exit Session.
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Re-Accreditation Report and Follow-up

The team report has two main sections: the Assurance section and the Advancement section.

  • The Assurance section presents the team's evaluation, providing the record of the visit, the evidence, and the rationale for the accrediting relationship. In this section, the team documents its judgment about an organization's fulfillment of the Criteria for Accreditation, evaluating the extent to which the University fulfills each of the Criteria, and indicating that the University: meets the Criterion; meets the Criterion but would benefit by initiating improvements; or meets the Criterion but Commission follow-up is necessary. The team also provides its recommendation regarding the status of the University.
  • The Advancement section emerges from the Assurance section and speaks directly to the University. It provides the team's observations and consultation focused on the University's future improvement, on issues that were raised in the Assurance section, deserving or requiring University attention raised in the Assurance section, on areas of accomplishment, and on other areas as defined by either the team or the University.

Several weeks after the site visit the team chair sends the draft team report to the Commission staff liaison and team members. The team members and staff liaison review the report and discuss it with the team chair. Infrequently, the discussion between the staff liaison and the team chair may result in modification of the preliminary recommendation shared at the Exit session. If that should occur, the chair immediately notifies the University and the team. Following this review, the team chair sends the draft team report to the University for review and corrections of errors of fact.

In the letter that accompanies the draft report, the team chair sets firm deadlines for response. Unless notified by one of the parties, once the deadline arrives the chair assumes that the final report can be produced and submitted to the Commission.

After reviewing the team report and the evaluation team's recommendation, the University's President sends a formal written response to the Commission, with copies to the team chair and each team member. The response is the University's commentary on the team's findings. It becomes part of the official record of the evaluation and an integral part of subsequent review processes, including the next evaluation. It also identifies the University's choice of review process for evaluations for continued candidacy, continued accreditation, and focused visits.

The University must send its response to the Commission and team members within the time specified in the cover letter sent with the final report. The University is asked to notify its staff liaison if it expects any delay in submitting the response. However, the Commission does not postpone its regularly scheduled processes and moves forward with the appropriate process if the organization fails to submit a response within a reasonable period.

The team visit is one phase of the evaluation process. The Commission process is multilayered to ensure the appropriateness of its actions. Briefly summarized, the review and decision-making processes include:

  • Review of documents relating to the visit by a Readers Panel or a Review Committee. The review process is chosen in the University's official response to the team report
  • Action by the Institutional Actions Council or the Review Committee
  • Validation of the IAC or Review Committee actions by the Board of Trustees

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References

Websites and printed materials from:

The United States Department of Education http://www.ed.gov
The Council for Higher Education Accreditation http://www.chea.org
The University of Minnesota's Office of Academic Affairs http://www.umn.edu
The Higher Learning Commission's Handbook of Accreditation http://www.ncahlc.org
The University of Arizona's Previous Reaccreditation Efforts

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The University of Arizona