Georgetown administrators and faculty members are taking a new approach in their efforts to seek mandatory university re-accreditation, focusing on topics such as institutional and student assessment.
Although Georgetown has been an accredited institution since 1921 through the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the MSCHE requires its 522 members to renew accreditation every 10 years. Accreditation is a quality-assurance mechanism for educational institutions in which they undergo evaluation by a third-party agency.
Despite a lengthy assessment process, accreditation is worth the effort because it enhances the worth of a Georgetown degree, according to Marjory Blumenthal, associate provost for academics, who co-chairs the steering committee for Georgetown’s re-accreditation.
“How did I know you didn’t just buy that diploma? It’s quality assurance, in that sense,” she said. “It is the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval for universities.”
Re-accreditation in 2012 guarantees continued federal financial aid for students.
“Financial aid [is] a big issue for getting the best students, some of whom don’t have the means,” Blumenthal said. “[Re-accreditation is] a mechanical set of tasks, but it’s very important.”
The MSCHE – one of the nation’s seven nonprofit accrediting agencies that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education – outlines 14 standards that all member institutions must meet in order to be accredited. Among them are institutional integrity, student support services and educational offerings.
While most MSCHE member institutions opt to do a “comprehensive self-study” of all 14 standards for their re-accreditation, Georgetown administrators are instead concentrating on four.
“What we’ve decided to do was more focused,” Blumenthal said of the university’s self-study. “We’ve determined that [after studying] other institutions that are like us in important ways . we would do something that wasn’t comprehensive.”
Blumenthal said the process, called “Selective Topics,” is a relatively new approach to re-accreditation. After Georgetown submits initial documentation that the university meets 10 of the 14 requirements and it is confirmed by MSCHE officials and administrators from other member institutions, the steering committee can move to its study of the four remaining standards: planning, resource allocation and institutional renewal, institutional assessment, general education and assessment of student learning.
“It lets us focus the self-study itself on four instead of 14, and we can make it a more interesting and more useful self-study process,” Blumenthal said.
The institutional planning study will focus on connecting planning mechanisms to resource allocations, which will involve information about the economy, leadership changes and the university’s second capital campaign fundraising program, which is set to launch this fall.
Both institutional assessment and assessment of student learning deal with collecting and analyzing data. While institutional assessment focuses on long-term university reports, assessment of student learning focuses on creating methods of improving the academic environment.
“This is where you get into interesting discussions with the faculty about, `How do we know that students have learned what they should be learning?'” Blumenthal said.
As part of this initiative, the steering committee asked that all academic programs develop and post their learning goals by the end of the spring semester. The committee is also considering the possibility of restructuring course syllabuses as a long-term project.
Blumenthal pointed to James Sandefur, chair of the math department, as an example of a professor who used creative methods to quantify student learning.
A few years ago, Sandefur hosted a series of “talk-alouds,” during which he filmed students working through math problems aloud. Sandefur moved away from the lecture-based style of teaching and reorganized the class into a dialogue- and presentation-based format.
“He learned that students were not approaching problems the way he expected them to do, so he totally transformed the approach of the class,” Blumenthal said.
She also cited a potential pilot program of keeping electronic student portfolios as another means of student assessment.
The accreditation process began in November 2009 after a MSCHE conference in Philadelphia, when a group of 21 Georgetown administrators and faculty from across the four undergraduate colleges, the Law Center and the Medical School formed the steering committee. The steering committee will publicize its findings this summer with the launch of an accreditation Web site. In the fall, the committee plans to hold town hall-style meetings to invite community input, she said. This group will then present its findings to the MSCHE, which will review its recommendations and finally determine Georgetown’s re-accreditation status, likely at MSCHE’s June 2012 commission meeting.
Should any university lose accreditation, the university would lose its federal financial aid for students, and likely, state aid as well. According to MSCHE Director for Communications and Public Relations Richard Pokrass, it would be would be detrimental to the institution’s reputation.
In August 2009, the MSCHE revoked accreditation for Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., after finding that the small private college lacked academic rigor and had financial stability. The university – which had been operating for 130 years – soon closed.
“The loss of accreditation is pretty much the death now to an institution,” Pokrass said.
He said it is rare for a university’s accreditation to be revoked; it has occurred twice in the past 25 years at MSCHE schools.
Pokrass said the MSCHE is more interested in bringing member universities into compliance with its 14 standards rather than revoking accreditation.
“We will walk the school through the process and really help them along,” he said.
Despite the recent accreditation removal of a D.C.-area school, Blumenthal is confident that the MSCHE will again grant Georgetown’s accreditation.
“I think there’s no chance that we will not be accredited,” she said, noting that that the MSCHE would likely send a follow-up committee if it found problems with the university.
Georgetown’s accreditation was last affirmed in November 2007 as part of a mid-cycle review, when the MSCHE requested a progress update that highlighted actions to strengthen university finances. “