Evergreen Valley College. Photo courtesy of San-Jose Evergreen Community College District.
Evergreen Valley College. Photo courtesy of San-Jose Evergreen Community College District.

    A key aspect of higher education most people don’t spend time considering is accreditation.

    For many people, as long as the college or university they attend or graduate from is accredited, that’s all they care about. But the process of accreditation, its history and future play a key role in ensuring a high-quality education and assuring students that a given college or university operates with institutional integrity and effectiveness.

    Accreditation is a process of voluntary, non-governmental self-regulation and peer review. This evaluation includes review of standards and practices regarding an institution’s mission, goals and objectives, utilization of resources and the extent to which it is achieving—or not achieving—its intended student learning outcomes. It’s a system unique to American higher education, as most countries rely on government agencies to perform similar functions.

    In California, community colleges are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). The mission of ACCJC is to support its member institutions to “advance educational quality and student learning and achievement” by collaborating with institutions to foster “institutional excellence and continuous improvement through innovation, self-analysis, peer review and application of standards.”

    In order for institutions of higher education to provide students with federal financial aid, the institution’s accrediting body must be recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a reliable authority regarding the quality of education being offered. ACCJC is so recognized.

    ACCJC undergoes review and revision of its accreditation standards every 10 years. The standards were last updated in 2014 and this decennial review is currently underway. The commission released its draft 2024 accreditation standards last week, and while the process is not yet done and these standards will almost certainly be further revised before they are made official, the draft standards give a good idea of the direction ACCJC is heading.

    This latest review is a continuation of efforts to advance equitable student success and educational excellence. According to its website, ACCJC’s goals for the standards review process are:

    • To reinforce principles of collaboration, transparency and inclusivity in the design and implementation of the standards review process.
    • To generate clear, effective standards that validate and support continuous quality improvement in support of student success and educational excellence in two-year institutions.
    • To generate standards that support member institutions’ continuous learning, improvement and innovation in pursuit of their unique missions, visions and cultures.
    • To generate standards that support the commission as it assesses institutional quality and makes decisions on the accredited status of members.

    This important work is taking place on an ambitious timeline that would have the first cohort of accreditation teams be trained using the new standards beginning next fall.

    This work is being done at a time when many voices are calling for substantial changes to the U.S. system of higher education accreditation. In a recent op-ed, two former members of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission argued the current accreditation process is “seriously flawed” and allows some institutions—often for-profit schools and nonprofit colleges that outsource many of their operations to for-profit companies—to take advantage of vulnerable students by leveraging federal student loans and grants while not providing outcomes that increase employment and earning potential.

    This also comes on the heels of a 2017 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office which found that, not only does the U.S. accreditation system have some key strengths, but there are challenges and opportunities for improvement as well.

    No system is perfect, which is precisely why ACCJC and other accreditors routinely review and update their standards. It is vital ACCJC’s standards review process results in important changes that will ensure the continued improvement and quality of education and services provided by its member institutions.

    San José Spotlight columnist Raúl Rodríguez is Interim Chancellor of San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]

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