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Proving That Your Outputs Count

Chief business officers are key leaders in the accreditation process, bringing budgetary discipline to mission-critical metrics.

By Karla Hignite

Among the key drivers that have prompted big changes in the higher education accreditation process are the growing need of increasingly diverse student populations for post-secondary education and the rising expectations about affordability, access, and workforce preparation. The proliferation of distance education programs and an influx of new types of educational providers in the past decade have likewise challenged regional accreditation agencies to re-examine standards regarding academic excellence. The end result: dramatically revised processes and standards that are less prescriptive and more centered on student achievement. They also put the onus on colleges and universities to showcase effectiveness relative to mission.

More recently, the Department of Education’s advisory committee on accreditation has been in contentious debate over the role and rigor of accreditation and specific accrediting agencies. Outcomes of the committee’s subsequent meetings may contribute to the momentum pushing accreditation bodies toward a more outcome-based model. On the other hand, the House and Senate Higher Education Act reauthorization bills call for complete replacement of the advisory committee, utilizing a different method of appointing members to the new committee. So, look for possible changes in this element of the accreditation equation.

Something that hasn’t changed as part of this peer review process is the critical role that chief business officers serve in showing financial health, since proof of insufficient resources is what often raises red flags. Priority No. 1 for CBOs remains providing clear evidence that an institution’s finances are in sync with its strategic plan. In addition, the greater emphasis on outputs requires CBOs to work collaboratively with faculty and with institutional research, enrollment management, and financial aid staff to develop meaningful metrics and track improvements over time.

Here’s a look at the underlying causes of these pivotal changes and the enhanced role that the shifts may define for the chief business officer.

Change Factors

Chief among the impacts that Ralph Wolff sees influencing the higher education landscape are major changes in student demographics during the past two decades. These include a significant upswing in adult learners and culturally and ethnically diverse and underprepared student populations. Wolff is president and executive director of the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities for the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), Alameda, California. He notes that 63 percent of entering freshman within The California State University System require remedial math or English. “That’s not a judgment, but it does suggest a huge pressure and tremendous implications for colleges and universities,” says Wolff.

A second influence is the growing diversity of higher education institutions and educational delivery mechanisms, from the arrival of more freestanding schools for specific disciplines to the advent of proprietary institutions. Add to that the steady rise in online programs offered by established universities and virtual start-ups. At the same time, enrollment figures for many community colleges across the United States have swelled. “A trend toward more vocation- and profession-oriented education has turned up the spotlight on issues of workforce preparation, since most students attend college to get a job, not only an education,” says Wolff. That paradigm shift influences where some institutions must devote more energies and resources.

Judith Eaton adds another factor to the list of impacts that have challenged regional accrediting agencies to evolve their standards. The uptick in international education—whether from U.S. institutions launching programs abroad or non-U.S. institutions seeking to establish operations in the United States—raises big questions about how to assess these programs, says Eaton. As president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), Washington, D.C., she is convinced that the accreditation community will collectively rise to this challenge to develop norms responsive to an increasingly cross-border industry in much the same way that it has addressed distance education.

Those efforts are already underway. In rewriting its standards, the Chicago-based Higher Learning Commission for the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA-HLC) made certain it didn’t assume a single-campus institution. “We have several institutions that are truly international in scale, and we have already accredited our first virtual institution,” says Steven Crow, the commission’s president. Accommodating these nontraditional entities has required stretching existing standards to the breaking point to see how expectations about teaching and learning environments can be applied to virtual and global settings, says Crow. “Our language now focuses less on what an institution looks like and more on what it does.” The bottom line, says Crow, is the need to incorporate a capacity to welcome the new and different, including e-learning consortia and for-profit buyouts of not-for-profit institutions.

In response to these and other factors, regional accrediting bodies across the United States have been working with their memberships to institute standards that are relevant regardless of institution type and mission.

Measures With Meaning

The sheer diversity of education providers is one reason for many institution leaders to conclude that it isn’t helpful to look solely to generic standards for evidence of success. Tracking and reporting graduation and retention rates may be useful measures for some. But that won’t work for many community colleges, where those who attend full time might represent only 10 percent of that student population, says Barbara Brittingham, director of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), Bedford, Massachusetts.

Peter Burnham concurs. Burnham is president of Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, New Jersey, one of the largest community colleges in the country, ranking in the top 50 of 1,200 in granting associate degrees. “Our large number of graduates reflects the nature of the population we serve and our curriculum,” explains Burnham. “Yet, the target mission of many community colleges is focused on populations for which graduation is not necessarily the most significant outcome.” Regional commissions recognize these unique situations and are evolving standards that also consider what a student has acquired in additional skills and knowledge, says Burnham. He also serves as chair of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Philadelphia.

Evaluating student learning experience requires new ways to analyze and measure progress. In turn, that means amplifying institutional research efforts and scrutinizing course syllabi to emphasize not only the number of lab experiences conducted and books read, but what students take away from these activities. Where Burnham believes community colleges likely have an advantage is that they have always been attuned to outcomes and to preparing students for the world of work—or further education and probable transfer to other institutions. In short, says Burnham, community colleges have been programmed for accountability.

The “A” Word

Accreditation Basics

The overall framework for the formal accreditation review that institutions must undergo every 10 years will be largely familiar for those who have been through the process before. For those who have not, the cycle is typically initiated by an internal self-study to determine compliance with regional standards and to identify strengths and areas for improvement. A team of peers composed of leaders and faculty from other institutions makes an on-site visit to see how an institution compares on paper and in person and submits a formal report to the accreditation agency. This report is used by the agency to make the final decision to grant accreditation for another 10 years or on a provisional basis while interim steps are developed and put in place by the institution to remedy any concerns.

To better prepare for your institution’s next assessment, consider these tips from individuals interviewed for this article.

  • Obtain a copy of your commission’s principles to gain a general understanding of fundamental requirements.
  • Review your institution’s most recent self-study and accreditation reports to ensure that issues raised during previous cycles are not repeated.
  • Seek a trusted colleague who has been through the process to ask what you need to know and do.
  • Attend regional accreditation training and/or annual meeting programming to learn more about the process and the experiences of other institutions.
  • Consider serving as a peer reviewer on a team for another institution’s review to gain a better understanding of the process and expectations.

It is no surprise to CHEA’s Eaton that the broader movement toward accountability and greater transparency throughout higher education practices has taken hold within the accreditation process and is evident in revised standards. The federal government—whether through Congress or the Department of Education—is a powerful lever, since institutions must be accredited for their students to be eligible for federal monies, says Eaton. Many of the issues raised by the Spellings Commission report and heard in debates surrounding the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, she says, are ones that the higher education community supports and believes are worth debating.

Yet, these same issues have been raised in other venues. The move by regional accreditation bodies to revise standards and gear reviewing and reporting processes to student learning outcomes and institutional performance was in motion well before release of the Spellings report, notes Eaton. She views the report as less a cause and more a symptom of overall dramatic changes taking place within higher education. “Given the enormous expansion of higher education we’ve enjoyed, given that at least some post-secondary education is now viewed as essential to moving ahead in society, and given the price of higher education—all those things have resulted in higher education being viewed differently in society today than in days past when fewer attended,” says Eaton. The growing need by more people for access to higher education has naturally fueled greater government attention, she adds.

This strong focus on accountability and student learning outcomes is not going away, argues Eaton. Any change of administration in the White House won’t alter the emphasis, because the accountability push is about more than government. It’s about fundamental changes in society and public expectations, says Eaton. She believes that, if surveyed, the public at large would say higher education is a good thing. “Yet, what drives the Fed’s interests are statements of concern, not statements of satisfaction,” says Eaton. “I might love my local college, but if I earned a degree and I can’t get a job or couldn’t transfer, that becomes a real problem.”

“There really isn’t a range of opinion about the need for more accountability,” explains Eaton. “The concern is how that process of accountability takes place.” Eaton’s fear, shared by many, is that the accreditation process could become federalized. That shift in power would mean that directives about what indicators are used to measure effectiveness would come from the federal level instead of from independent regional accrediting commissions. Like institutions, accreditation agencies are under pressure to show more explicit assessment of student achievements and institutional performance, in part by way of enhanced data collection. The idea, says Eaton, is that at some point, the additional institution data, arrayed nationally, may provide evidence of achievement and act as a catalyst for institutions to do more. In her view, the flexibility granted to individual accrediting bodies for how each develops standards and conducts institutional assessments is worth safeguarding because it ultimately leads to an innovative and strong system of review.

According to Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) Commission on Colleges, Decatur, Georgia, institutions have already been collecting much of the outcome information being proposed at the national level by way of their own institution-developed instruments. The larger question is how to share the data publicly in ways that makes sense and are comparable among institutions of all different types, programs, and student populations. While there are groups working independently to develop assessment strategies that might be useful among similar-type institutions, such as all land-grant universities, there is no silver bullet, warns Wheelan. Accrediting agencies are likewise trying to find some way to present meaningful comparisons to the public—guidance counselors, parents and students, or employers.

Getting Better

National debates about the accreditation process and relevant measures underscore the often uncomfortable dual role of accrediting agencies.

Important to keep in mind, says Burnham, is that all regional and specialized accrediting bodies are voluntary membership-based organizations. “At the same time, we do not have a federalized definition of accreditation. Rather, the federal government has, to this point, empowered regional bodies essentially to be the quasi-gatekeepers with regard to institutional eligibility to receive a share of the federal funding that flows to all of higher education, largely in the form of student financial aid,” says Burnham. Sometimes these two roles come in conflict. “It’s important for institution leaders to understand that at the same time that greater expectations have emerged for accountability and data to support outcomes, accrediting bodies are here to assist institutions to become more successful in meeting expectations of students and employers.”

Underlying an explicit focus on student learning outcomes, the revised standards by and large also emphasize continuous improvement. One issue across the board for all accrediting bodies has been how to make the process value-added for institutions, says Crow. When NCA-HLC re-engineered its process, it implemented an alternate approach to the traditional self-study for institutions with strong review histories. While all institutions must meet accreditation standards, says Crow, many are free to conduct studies around a key issue that they see as seminal to the institution, such as globalization and the impact for its campus.

Similarly, SACS has implemented an approach to encourage institution leaders to develop a quality enhancement plan they can use to carry self-identified goals into planning discussions going forward, says Wheelan. In this general movement toward continuous improvement, institutions are encouraged to measure performance against their own mission instead of an arbitrary set of hallmarks for all colleges and universities.

Assessing Financial Health

Another theme surrounding accreditation changes: a general increase in the demand for more frequent and comprehensive financial reporting, says Eaton. This is a logical development; when an institution experiences trouble, frequently money is at least part of the picture. And any questions about financial soundness are likely to spill into accreditation concerns, says Eaton. So, while every accrediting body has standards for fiscal soundness and stewardship of funds, there’s pressure to do more.

SACS now asks member institutions to provide a financial snapshot every year. In addition, a recent initiative calls for colleges and universities to review finances through an interim report during the fifth year of an institution’s accreditation process. “In some instances, we may find that a capital project has been planned for which the anticipated funding has not yet been received,” says Wheelan. “While that on its own is not cause for concern, our more proactive approach allows us to know of any difficulties early on so that we can assist those institutions that do need help.” That help may take the form of letting institutions know what to report and how to calculate assets and debt. In some instances, a high turnover of administrators may mean the risk that the accreditation ball gets dropped, says Wheelan. “While it may be relatively easy to correct an academic concern in two years,” she explains, “it is not so easy to correct a financial concern in such a short time.”

Greater and earlier involvement of business officers in the accreditation process is occurring in MSCHE as well, where institutions must show the relationship between their five-year financial plan, strategic plan, and outcomes. “We are looking for cross-sectional evidence,” says Burnham. “How does the five-year financial plan dovetail with the institution’s strategic plan, and what is the correlation between these and specified outcomes?” In addition, financial information submitted in an institution’s annual information profile is used to identify major changes that might trigger further inquiries. For MSCHE, during academic year 2006-07, approximately 22.5 percent of follow-up actions requested by the commission related to financial matters, and 36 percent related to planning linked to budgeting.

The inability of an institution to fully achieve levels of success or capacity to support all it intends to do within its mission is not always the institution’s fault, says Burnham. A state’s fiscal crisis or weakened investments are out of the control of business officers and presidents. The regional process recognizes these practical realities and does a great deal to work with institutions to guide them and continue to set benchmarks. It’s not about forgiving them, says Burnham, but about instituting a modified approach if additional time is needed. “We try to work with each institution and its unique circumstances so that we are not working punitively.”

The NCA-HLC is exploring new ways to assess institutional financial health, in part by trying to get more CFOs involved in the roughly 100 on-site team visits the commission conducts each year. Commission leaders are also talking about setting up a panel of CFOs to review institutions on paper and identify whether a visiting team should be concerned about a particular issue. The commission has started collecting data on financial ratios, asking institutions to provide five years of running ratios and to then add in each subsequent year on an annual basis thereafter, says Crow. “If we are going to annually monitor indicators of economic health through a review of ratios, then we need the expertise to flag whether there is real cause for concern,” says Crow. “Our goal is to determine potential problems without hassling institutions unnecessarily.”

Crow admits that it has become increasingly difficult to assess the financial well-being of an institution, in part because of the new and complex kinds of financial arrangements that institutions are initiating and a continued shift toward outsourcing services. For instance, greater risk is inherent in an institution’s decision to move toward digital libraries, which includes contracting for external database access. What if the selected provider goes out of business? Any outsourcing decision requires an increasingly more sophisticated understanding of how the related financial arrangements and relationships are supporting institution mission, says Crow. “CBOs must engage other institution leaders in reflecting on institution priorities and goals in light of the financial implications over the long haul. What may seem a smart financial move in the short run could prove otherwise.”

Undoubtedly, the business of higher education will continue to become more complex and more competitive, says Crow. That makes for a tough job for accrediting agencies and peer reviewers, who have to make judgments about institutional quality and health in a rapidly changing environment. And that makes the role of the chief business officer all the more critical for connecting the financial and strategic dots.

Bigger Roles for Business Officers

Brent Ruben believes that the role of the CBO, in general, has shifted from a silo model to one that requires increased integration with all parts of the institution. That’s in large part due to broadening recognition that a college or university is, and must be understood as, a business. Accreditation, in particular, provides an opportunity for the CBO to demonstrate the value of the academic–administrative partnership, says Ruben, executive director of the Center for Organizational Development and Leadership at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. “CBOs bring an understanding of the dynamics and realities of the marketplace to the table, which faculty and academic leaders may not possess,” says Ruben. “The challenge for CBOs is to become more engaged with the culture of the academic side of the institution. In this respect, the accreditation process—and particularly the self-study—can be an excellent opportunity for forging or reinforcing strong relationships with academic and other administrative colleagues throughout the institution.” In Ruben’s opinion, the partnership that is forged through the accreditation process will be indispensable, especially as issues of academic excellence are more interdependent with financial considerations.

Because the finances of an institution are a key determinant to showing the ability of an institution to support its research, academic, and public service mission, financial matters tend to be an item that emerges high on the radar screen of reviewers, says Timothy Czerniec, senior vice president of business and finance for Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida. He should know. Czerniec has been involved with SACS since 1980 at all levels of the accreditation process, participating on more than 30 site visits and serving 14 times on groups that help analyze institution reports and reviews. “CBOs must treat the accreditation process as a serious matter, clearly demonstrating a focus on financial working capital, debt controls, and endowment controls to manage the institution properly,” says Czerniec.

The fundamental responsibility of the business officer goes beyond ensuring that the institution is financially stable and can respond to emergencies. Other important actions in providing financial guidance include:

Showing how the institution is shepherding financial resources. Says Brittingham, “If you look at the institution’s stated priorities, can you follow those into the budget?” If support follows strategy, you should be able to see these connections.

Working in concert with the president and chief academic officer. Continually review with the leadership team the strategic plan and priorities in light of the institution’s finances, says Brittingham. “Because strategic plans can be overly ambitious, business officers have to encourage others to prioritize and must help the institution’s leaders better understand all the indirect costs of specific initiatives, such as operating a campus overseas or undertaking a distance learning program.”

Educating faculty on the finer points of finance. The larger the institution, the less people tend to understand about institutional budgeting, notes Wolff. “Chief business officers need to help faculty, for example, to understand not only budget development but the nuances of budget priorities and decisions, such as the need to reallocate resources during enrollment downfalls.”

Taking a central role in institution planning and assessment. Wheelan recommends that business officers go well beyond providing hard data. “If the demographic studies of your region or community, for example, suggest a significant increase in high school graduates, and you know, historically, that you receive 10 percent of those graduates, consider how well your institution is prepared to absorb that projected enrollment increase. Do you have the available space, including parking slots? What additional increases to institutional aid may need to be budgeted?”

Staying on top of the institution’s money flow. This challenge, says Wheelan, requires concerted conversations with leaders across the entire campus. Among other things, that means talking with facilities staff to factor in deferred maintenance costs; sitting down with faculty, institutional research, and enrollment management staff to assess numbers of students, impacts to programs, and related technology needs; keeping tabs on the advancement office to ensure the institution is not borrowing more money than it is taking in; and working with investment staff and committees to determine appropriate levels of endowment spending.

Evaluating expenditures. With student learning outcomes becoming more visible accreditation criteria, says Burnham, business officers must shift their sights from budget inputs to budget effectiveness. “If an institution invests $10 million in a new IT infrastructure, what is the value to student learning—other than the fact that this facility now exists? The paradigm shift toward measuring outputs means that inputs are relevant only in terms of their impact,” explains Burnham. Because business officers must be actively engaged in defining how learning outcomes are measured, they have to understand academic mission as well as institutional mission and to understand these in a tactical sense. For instance, says Burnham, if an institution decides it wants to provide distance education, the business officer must be part of the discussion. The planning goes beyond mere equipping of the campus with more smart classrooms to figuring out how to capture data to validate student learning. Strategic planning for all budgets and buildings, says Burnham, must begin to tie back to student learning outcomes.

Burnham’s institution made the decision five years ago to decentralize, when it began experiencing enormous growth in student enrollments. Instead of creating traditional satellite campuses, facilities planning focused on what it would take to support student learning, since a primary goal was to link counseling support to the college’s learning resources center. Burnham believes that for every institution, the role of the business officer must include being active in identifying how student learning outcomes can be achieved through improved facilities, better technology, and more focused allocation of resources.

Learning Curve

Business officers seasoned in the accreditation process can offer insights on the review’s changing priorities and what peers might learn from the whole experience.

Make the process a catalyst for change. As senior vice president for finance and administration at the University of Redlands, Redlands, California, Phillip Doolittle has weathered the accreditation process three times. Most recently, Redlands was one of the first institutions in its region to engage WASC’s revised standards and two-step review process for institutional capacity and educational effectiveness. While the time commitment was much more significant than in the past, says Doolittle, the new data-driven process pushed leaders to focus on specific goals and objectives and how well those were being met. “You have the opportunity,” he says, “to dig deeper at the core functions, clarify and define specific objectives, and demonstrate how the institution is being effective.”

First-time Accreditation Apprehension

While most institutions have been around long enough to seek reaccreditation, start-ups seeking accreditation status for the first time can offer some good insights.

For the faculty and staff of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, which officially opened its doors in 2002, the importance of receiving accreditation was never a hard sell. “We knew from the beginning that regional accreditation and accreditation of our engineering programs were top priorities,” says Stephen Hannabury, vice president for administration and finance at the Needham, Massachusetts-based college. “We all understood the stakes—from the ability to participate in federal financial aid programs to admitting international students or being part of the national merit program—not to mention the importance to graduates who would certainly want to go on for additional degrees,” says Hannabury.

Support for the Process
As a result, an institutionwide commitment to the accreditation process was in place from day one of hiring faculty and staff. Olin College was founded as an independent, nonprofit undergraduate institution in 1997 with a grant in excess of $400 million from the F. W. Olin Foundation. Its unusual financing model provided four-year, full-tuition scholarships to all students. Hannabury admits that this led to particular areas of interest during the different phases of accreditation: He went through the college’s self-study twice—once for candidacy status, which Olin received in 2004, and again for full accreditation, which was granted in 2006 by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), Bedford, Massachusetts.

“Because of our start-up status and unique financing model, the visiting teams were keenly interested in our financial affairs, raising questions about how the institution would be sustained,” says Hannabury. “In our early years, we were spending at a higher rate than projected, so we were a little concerned ourselves. We let our teams know of our intention to bring spending down and to find other revenue sources beyond our endowment.” A primary reason for the higher spending was the need to develop Olin’s academic program from scratch. “We essentially asked faculty to develop the best engineering curriculum possible, and they did,” notes Hannabury. “But anytime you do something for the first time, it is never as efficient as you might like.”

Learn As You Go
Hannabury admits that some of the college’s early financial models did not adequately capture the multitude of costs associated with a start-up. He now knows from firsthand experience that there is ample unchartered territory when it comes to creating a physical institution from the foundation up. Sometimes you have to wing it. “Early on,” says Hannabury, “we realized that residence halls, classrooms, and labs would not be ready when we had anticipated. Yet we had already begun recruiting our first class. We thought, ‘Should we tell them thanks, but never mind?’” In a decision that Hannabury says emerged somewhat from desperation, institution leaders created the Olin Partners program, to which it admitted 30 students. They came and worked alongside faculty and staff for a full year, developing a student life program and honor code and testing the curriculum. “They were essentially on the forefront of our accreditation process,” says Hannabury, “helping us shape the institution.” The Olin Partners became members of the college’s first freshman class, which graduated in 2006.

“We are still working on the financial sustainability piece,” says Hannabury, “but we are much more confident looking ahead.” That’s in part because the college has made significant changes to its investment management program to improve endowment performance. It is also actively looking for other sources of revenue, including facilities rental during summer months and at slower times throughout the year. Olin’s current student population stands at slightly more than 300. While the original intent was to grow the college to 600 students, the institution’s leaders have decided that might be too aggressive at this time, says Hannabury. “We’re pausing to give ourselves a chance to catch up and to let our endowment start working for us.”

Hannabury is quick to note the truly invaluable additional sets of eyes that the NEASC teams provided for Olin’s financial and programmatic plans. His own understanding about the value of the accreditation process got a boost when he served as a peer reviewer for a Western Association of Schools and Colleges institution review—serendipitously, for another start-up. “It was like looking in a mirror, only better,” says Hannabury. “They were several stages ahead of us, so I was able to see their issues and reflect on potential implications for our institution.”

For institutions that use the review as an opportunity for reflection, suggests Doolittle, it can provide a road map for future action. Redlands, for example, implemented several academic improvements either directly or indirectly as a result of its recent review. A writing project through the curriculum program aims to track student improvement in writing skills; and “capstone” projects have been implemented for most academic majors, requiring students to demonstrate what they have learned. Redlands also initiated seminars for all incoming freshmen, in which a professor is assigned to serve as the student’s academic advisor until the student selects a major. “It isn’t left to junior faculty to provide advising,” says Doolittle. “In fact, we intentionally pair our more seasoned advisors with students whom the institution identifies as being at a higher risk of not succeeding.”

From a staffing standpoint, Redlands has hired two institutional research staff who report to Doolittle and who are helping develop measuring tools to track progress on academic and non-academic metrics—all ultimately tied to showing effectiveness. “This isn’t easy or clear-cut,” admits Doolittle. “How do you measure the quality and outcomes of something like a freshmen advising seminar?” At this point, Redlands is developing a database to monitor and compare results from year to year. “If these areas continue as a theme for us, then the next time we go through the accreditation review, we will begin to have a history of our progress,” says Doolittle. The initiatives each institution decides to develop may be different; but for whatever you say you will do, you must begin to measure and show progress. That’s the new thrust, says Doolittle.

Clarify priorities. Richard Norman, senior vice president of finance and business services and treasurer at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, came to the university with three accreditation reviews at other institutions under his belt. During Miami University’s most recent accreditation, in 2005, Norman found the new focus of North Central’s process geared toward the future and the institution’s ability to get there. “The focus on continuous improvement and operational cost drivers forces an institution to match its vision with reality,” says Norman.

Whether an institution is called upon to better explain tuition increases and justify expenses or to assure bond rating agencies that processes and procedures are in place to maintain market viability, chief business officers must have a full grasp of institutional priorities. That includes academics, finances, and infrastructure, says Norman, and makes long-term financial planning key. “You may not know for certain the ultimate fate of your current infrastructure,” he says, “but the further out you can project potential deferred-maintenance and renovation needs, the better picture you can provide of your institutional financial health to help others within the institution prioritize.”

Norman found the self-study process to be the most valuable component of the accreditation process. “Involvement in institutional self assessment allows the CBO to not only identify areas of improvement but to ensure that the institution is funding the highest priorities. While everything on a campus can be seen as valuable, when you are forced to match available funds, you sometimes have to make the tough decisions of what you can’t afford,” says Norman.

Miami’s most recent accreditation resulted in a positive report from the accrediting agency, which Norman attributes to a thorough and honest review of the institution’s strengths and weaknesses during the self study-process. For an established institution like Miami University, Norman says that the real tension inherent in the accreditation process may not relate as much to whether the university will be accredited as it does to how the university will maintain its position and strive to meet its mission going forward. “This is a very competitive business,” acknowledges Norman, “and you are either getting better or you are getting worse.”

The Value of Analysis

While most institutions ultimately receive accreditation, status is by no means a ceremonial rubber stamp, says Czerniec, who has had the gut-wrenching experience of testifying against a peer institution. “First and foremost,” says Czerniec, “chief business officers should understand that the peer part of this process is extremely important. This is a very professional activity based on making constructive judgments about how an institution operates. Reviewers spend substantial time in their analysis and in developing materials to benefit the institution going forward.”

In Burnham’s view, the whole assessment process is a good way to make decisions about what may need to change. “Higher education has thrived because of its independence and freedom to adapt to unique needs. Although it can be onerous to deal with criticism, institutions should consider the accreditation process as an opportunity to learn and grow,” believes Burnham. That’s the crux of what MSCHE and the other regional accrediting bodies are attempting in ratcheting up expectations of member institutions, explains Burnham. “The days of being able to ride on institutional reputation have passed, but there should be no embarrassment in having to illustrate the success of what we do and to substantiate our claims about student achievement.”

>>> Conversation Starter
What has your institution learned by conducting a self-study to prepare for review and accreditation? What programs or processes have you implemented as a result?
E-mail: carole.schweitzer@nacubo.org.

Something that annoys him greatly is a perception that regional accreditation is not a rigorous process. “Peer review can provide far greater scrutiny than regulatory review,” says Burnham. While there remains some internal angst surrounding the accreditation process and the fear of federalization, even Congress doesn’t want more bureaucracy, suggests Burnham. “What we all want is more integrity. This is not Big Brother trying to turn higher education into a one-size-fits all.” At the same time, institutions have to accept the challenge of becoming more self responsible, believes Burnham. “We should all view the revised processes and standards in place as an opportunity to do a better job of validating to the consumer the great value of the American higher education system.”

KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.


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