Student Information System for Higher Education – The Guide

What is a Student Information System (SIS)?

A student information system (SIS) is like a giant electronic filing cabinet with a digital manila folder on each of your students. It’s housed in one central location, allowing all the key players like admissions, registrar office, financial aid, billing and student services to access and add pertinent data to each student’s folder. In short, an SIS keeps all the most important information, all in one place.

The Main Benefits of an SIS

Also called student management software or school administrative software, an integrated SIS enables schools to manage all operational data in a single database (not to be confused with a learning management system, which can be integrated with an SIS to manage the classroom experience). A comprehensive schoolwide student data system covers everything from admissions to business operations to student services and alumni development, effectively following the students’ lifecycle from inquiry to long after graduation.

An SIS is essentially an open line of communication between all parties on the higher education spectrum, tracking and transacting data in a clean, organized fashion. The goal is a more seamless exchange of information between departments and constituents, including students, faculty, staff, advisors, parents and budget administrators.

Having integrated, accessible data remedies the common issue of siloed information, streamlines manual and otherwise outdated processes, and allows accurate real-time reporting. It enables schools to have a complete, thorough understanding of each student, including all facets of their educational experience.

The Main Features of an SIS

SIS features vary in size and scope, but generally cover the students’ progress from enrollment to retention to outcomes. The higher education software will address the main functional areas of the school, including Admissions, Student Services, Registrar’s Office and Business Office, Alumni Relations and Development.

Admissions process

With heightened pressure on enrollment numbers, particularly for small and mid-sized schools that may be more dependent than larger institutions on tuition revenue, it is critical for your SIS to support you in reaching your goals. Your SIS needs to work for you, not create more work for you.

Starting with the admissions funnel, a good SIS not only helps you manage prospects, but allows them to manage their own progress along the way. For students that means inquiring and applying online, eliminating unnecessary paperwork and processing time for your team. Through a secure password-protected web portal, they can also monitor the status of their application and view missing requirements in real-time, freeing your admissions team from the slog of missing requirements letters.

For administrators, an extensive duplicate checking process reduces what can be a time intensive process. A travel management component helps your staff strategically plan their school visits and communicate with students. Workflow and contact management features keep the admissions process streamlined and effective.

  • Inquiries: Responsive, customizable forms can live on your website, where interested students can complete them without needing to login. Form submissions then go through an information validation and duplicate management check to ensure that the data in your system is clean and accurate.
  • Applications: Using a secure portal, students can apply online with a customized form or upload the common application. Administrators can then access an applicant profile that pulls information from other areas, like financial aid, to get a complete picture of a student.
  • Enrollment: A comprehensive, well-organized database keep students moving through the funnel to the enrollment stage, supporting your efforts to reach your growing goals.

Student services

More than offering options for online course registration, an integrated SIS helps your institution build a complete record on each student, which, beyond courses can include health records, financial holds, conduct records and room assignments. A self-service interface allows key constituents connected to each student to see and update that very information based on varying permission levels. Providing easy, anytime access for parents and students improves communication and frees your staff to focus their time and energy on important tasks.

  • Student transcripts and report cards: With immediate access to updated academic performance reports, students can track their progress and administrators can smoothly manage official transcript requests.
  • Discipline records: Notes about judicial matters can be recorded and can trigger specific actions to ensure that incidents are resolved and students are not slipping through the cracks.
  • Forms and waivers: Administrators can be released from unnecessary paperwork by collecting and processing enrollment requirements online, with real-time reports on missing materials.
  • Health records: Keep accurate records of individual and campus-wide health issues by tracking immunizations, allergies, illnesses and other information essential to the well-being of your students.
  • Housing: Track historic and current housing and roommate assignments, make future assignments, and monitor residence hall capacity.
  • Parking registration: Access to live records of authorized vehicles on campus ensures public safety and cuts down on the workload of facilities management.
  • Student/parent portal: Parents and students can quickly view information anytime, anywhere through a secure, password-protected, FERPA-compliant web-based portal.

Registrar’s office

This complex area of administration has many overlapping and interconnected pieces, for which an integrated SIS is an ideal solution. Students can easily view and select courses; registrar staff can cross-checks for conflicts like holds, prerequisites and full classes; faculty can view rosters and schedules, and correspond with their classes; and advisors can email their advisees and adjust permissions for self-registration.

  • Academic audits and alerts: Alerts can be added based on certain criteria to trigger follow-up tasks to ensure that students are staying on track. Academic audits help students and their advisors develop a plan for meeting all their requirements.
  • Attendance: With the ability to track attendance, performance and participation, faculty and administrators can monitor trends and catch at-risk students early on.
  • Class roster: Faculty can more seamlessly manage their classes by viewing rostersincluding photos and profiles on each studentsand emailing or texting individual students and/or the entire class.
  • Course registration: Using an online portal, students can easily choose their courses and avoid registration conflicts.
  • Faculty/advising portal: For faculty and advisors who wear many hats, having a one-stop-shop makes a big difference when it comes to time management and retention.
  • Recording grades: Faculty can enter grades directly into the system.
  • Student schedules: Students can view their full schedule, including instructors, class sizes and locations.

Business office

With the general ledger at the financial core of many institutions of higher education, having a system that works within that architecture is key. A good SIS cuts down on data duplication and batch transfers by allowing your business office to integrate operations and reporting with other offices. It also provides the necessarily flexibility to set up projects such as campus construction outside of the general ledger with separate budgets and long timeframes.

  • Accounts payable/receivable: Your system should be robust enough to accommodate your volume of students and vendors, but flexible enough to accommodate necessary exceptions.
  • Financial aid: Parents and students can view their award and see cost estimates in real-time, and administrators can view pending and verified financial aid as well as details of payments. Beyond packaging and billing, detailed and accurate government reporting is critical for Title IV eligible institutions.
  • Student billing: Automated mailings and notifications streamline the workflow for administrators. Students can view billing statements and financial holds, and make payments online (at once, in installments or at a later date).

Alumni relations and development

With complete information on each student from inquiry to alumni, an integrated SIS increases your capacity to strategically engage with them long after they graduate. And beyond alumni relationship management, your staff will be better equipped to manage relationships associated with those alumni, such as parents and siblings, who could prove to be crucial to development efforts.

  • Campaign management: A careful and strategic communication plan is critical to the success of your campaigns. In addition to contact and moves management, an integrated SIS can also assist in gift processing, third-party affluence ratings and fund management.
  • Career services and outcomes: Having access to the full view of student lifecycle undergirds institutional research. Your alumni tell your school’s story, so tracking them adequately is critical. By better understanding where your alumni end up, you can remain engaged and leverage those connections to help with future career prospects for students.

Workflow, contact management and reporting

An integrated SIS not only keeps data centralized, but communication too. Strategically plan your communication flow and recruiting messages in advance and avoid the time-intensive task of corresponding with prospective students, particularly about items (like missing requirements, deadline reminders and campus visit invitations) that can easily be automated. Workflow tools can assign triggers and reminders based on criteria you set, and contact management features not only log all points of contactcall, email, text, mailingbut allow you to deliver targeted messages to specific markets to increase the effectiveness and personalization of your recruitment communications.

With an integrated SIS, rekeying data becomes a thing of the past. Customizable and standard base reports allow you to search any data field to see real-time information for tracking leads and other activity. In addition, audit logs track all changes to field values in the database, providing you with more informed intel about campus operations and making it easier to resolve issues.

Other Considerations

A good SIS will integrate well with other targeted systems, such as learning management systems for online learning and digitized instruction and assessments. It will also offer features that not only help you organize information, but manage that information well. Alert systems allow you to flag students based on specific information within their file related to, for example, billing or academic performance. Communication reminders prompt you to connect with inquiries and applicants at specific points in the process, and allow you to track those touch points in a single location. Reverse audits, or predictive audits, can help you identify and address at-risk students early-on.

Reporting Tools

In an age when reporting is king, the strength of an SIS is correlated with the quality and timeliness of the information it delivers. Reporting poor data can be disastrous, and could ultimately put your accreditation and Title IV student financial aid funding eligibility in jeopardy. Conversely, good reporting can not only keep your school on track but also lead to improved results.

Having the ability to synchronize information about student performance and admissions demographics can give you intel into which regions and programs are performing best for your school, allowing you to address existing issues and better target your efforts moving forward. Through the aggregation and alignment of data, schools can achieve more effective allocation of resources and more streamlined reporting.

Integrated Versus Best-of-Breed

Best-of-breed models may specialize in niche aspects of the student lifecycle and offer an improved look and user experience. While this sort of highly specific approach is likely appealing to individual departments within your school, the benefits come at the cost of data accessibility.

Best-of-breed options are rich in function-specific features, and offer many bells and whistles for operations like admissions and financial aid. But the draw of an independent, function-specific system ends up adding layers of complexity when it comes to data exchange. Moving data between independent systems can be costly, error-prone and sometimes impossible.

On the other hand, an integrated SIS, while unlikely to meet every department’s every need, is about priorities, not perfection. What schools give up in terms of bells and whistles they gain in efficiency through the organization of day-to-day operations.

See a full analysis on integrated versus best-of-breed.

Considerations for Choosing an SIS

There are countless SIS options on the market, and while there’s no right answer, there are several factors to consider as you narrow down the right option for your school.

On-premise versus the cloud

While the increasingly prominent shift is toward more web-based systems, some databases can still be housed on a physical central server. The main consideration here is staffing capacity. Because the vendor does much of the heavy lifting for cloud-based solutions, they tend to be ideal for small to mid-sized schools running on a lean staff.

Cost

Cost will vary depending on whether you choose an on-premise or cloud-based system. Variations include purchase structure (subscription or lump sum), equipment (virtual or hardware), installation and configuration, customization and integration of other systems, data migration, training, maintenance, personnel, security and backup options.

See a full analysis of student information system cost considerations.

Security

Data integrity is critical with any database, particularly ones containing sensitive information in student records, so whether it’s your IT staff handling the central server or it’s rolled into your cloud-based SIS product, make sure the best security practices are employed and FERPA compliances are met.

Vendor specialty

Broad education software might not be specific enough to meet your needs, as K-12 schools may have some very different needs than higher education. Consider what tools, customizations and features will meet your specific needs.

Scope and scalability

Small and mid-sized schools may end up struggling under the weight of costly, complicated products designed for large institutions. It’s important to assess whether the size of the product suits the size of your school, and also whether the system can grow with you and meet your future needs, five or ten years down the road.

Time

The process of searching for, deciding on and finally implementing an SIS can take several months or even years. As you weigh your options, consider how much flexibility you have for a lengthy, labor-intensive implementation versus opting for a lighter system that could be up and running quickly. Also consider how much time are you saving in the long run by streamlining efforts and improving efficiency.

Personnel

Though it may at times feel like a herculean effort to bring all the key players on board with a decision about an SIS, consider how well the system works for everyone involved. And be sure to scope out what training, resources and support the vendor provides for onboarding and upkeep.

Integrations

An SIS manages administrative needs for schools, but there are other aspects of the educational experience that it doesn’t cover. For those, understanding common integrations will ensure that you get the most out of your software selection.

  • Learning management systems. An LMS (such as Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas or Brightspace) helps faculty manage the classroom experience, including content delivery, attendance monitoring and achievement tracking. Here’s what you need to know about choosing an LMS.
  • Reporting. Some vendors will tightly integrate with a reporting system (like Crystal Reports) to help you maximize your data by providing increased access to canned reports.
  • Wealth screening. If you plan to use your SIS to its fullest capacity, covering the full student lifecycle through alumni and development relations, integration with third-party wealth screening will help focus your campaigns.
  • Financial Aid.An SIS may have the full capacity to service financial aid’including billing, packaging and government reporting’but third-party financial aid software (EdExpress, Powerfaids and BEN) can also be integrated.

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Understanding Gainful Employment Regulations

When boiled down, education is primarily about experience and outcome. Prospective students and families weighing their college and/or career preparation options often consider several key factorsamong them, affordability and financial aid, program completion time, courses of study, location and potential co-curricular or professional opportunities. And while students are often trying to piece together the educational experience that will best fit them, they are also seeking to understand the likely outcome of that education in the long runthe anticipated return on a hefty investment.

When Title IV financial aid funds are at play in that very investment, the federal government also wants to see that taxpayer dollars are allocated to schools and programs that set students up for success, which is where gainful employment (GE) disclosure and reporting come in. It’s important for institutions to understand what gainful employment is, what regulations surround it, why it matters and how to accurately disclose and report required information.

An Introduction to Gainful Employment

After an extensive rulemaking process, new gainful employment regulations were published on October 31, 2014 and went into effect on July 1, 2015. The new regulations have more rigorous standards for accountability and transparency to further protect students from poor and sometimes fraudulent career preparation programs that have historically left them saddled with debt they cannot repay. To ensure that students are being put on a path to success, the Department of Education requires certain schools to demonstrate that they adequately prepare students for a�?gainful employment in a recognized occupationa�? in order to be eligible to receive (and continue receiving) Title IV student financial aid funds.

Gainful employment regulations apply to roughly 3,700 institutions around the country, including non-degree educational programs at public and private nonprofit institutions and virtually all educational programs at for-profit and proprietary institutions. These often include post-secondary certificate and diploma programs, training programs and technical and vocational education. Programs leading to an associate’s, bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree at public and private nonprofit institutions of higher education are not considered gainful employment programs in this sense and do not need to comply with the gainful employment standards.

What is a�?Gainful Employment in a Recognized Occupationa�??

Three debt measures are used to determine whether or not institutions are preparing their students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation: repayment rate, debt-to-earnings ratios based on annual income, and debt-to-earnings ratios based on discretionary income. These measures are intended to show that students are prepared for adequate job placement in recognized occupations that pay reasonable living wages, and that students are not so buried in educational debt that their loan payments absorb the bulk of their income.

  • Repayment Rate
    The rate of loan repayment must be at least 35 percent for gainful employment programs to remain eligible for Title IV funds. Repayment rate = original outstanding principal balance of loans paid in full plus the original outstanding principal balance of payments-made loans, divided by the original outstanding principal balance. The value of the fraction is multiplied by 100 to get the repayment rate.
  • Debt-to-Earnings
    For every gainful employment program, the Department of Education will calculate debt-to-earnings ratios based on information supplied by the institution for a specified cohort period (two or four years) as well as from the Social Security Administration.
  • Annual Earning Rate = median annual loan payment divided by the greater of the mean or median annual earnings of graduates. The a�?passa�? threshold for gainful employment standards is that graduates’ annual loan payments are less than or equal to 8 percent of their annual earnings. The a�?faila�? threshold is that the annual loan payment is greater than 12 percent of annual earnings.
  • Discretionary Income Rate = median annual loan payment divided by the discretionary income of graduates (i.e. the higher of the mean or median annual earnings, less 1.5 times the Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines). The a�?passa�? threshold for gainful employment regulations is that graduates’ annual loan payments are less than or equal to 20 percent of their discretionary income. The a�?faila�? threshold is that the annual loan payment is greater than 30 percent of discretionary income.

Programs are considered in the a�?zonea�? if their calculations fall between the a�?passa�? and a�?faila�? thresholds. a�?Faila�? marks for two out of three consecutive years or a combination of a�?faila�? and a�?zonea�? marks for four consecutive years will render a gainful employment program ineligible for Title IV funding.

Understanding Disclosure and Reporting

Schools must disclose information about their gainful employment programs to the public using the Gainful Employment Disclosure Template to help students make informed decisions. In addition, they must submit an official, comprehensive report about students enrolled in these programs to the Department of Education’s central database for student aid, the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS).

According to the Department of Education, disclosure of the following data on the institution’s website and in promotional materials is required for each gainful employment program:

  • Occupations associated with program (by name and SOC code)
  • Typical program completion time
  • On-time completion rate
  • Program costs
  • Placement rate
  • Median loan debt

Also according to the Department of Education, reporting of the following data to the NSLDS is required for each student who received Title IV funds for a gainful employment program that they either completed or withdrew from:

  • Tuition and fees assessment before aid or credits are applied
  • Cost of books, supplies and equipment
  • Institutional debt owed apart from Title IV debt (e.g. obligations such as library or laboratory fees)
  • Private loans

The Gainful Employment Reporting Process

Institutions must report on an award year (July 1 through June 30). A student enrolled for more than one award year must be reported in each award year, and a student enrolled in more than one program must be reported for each program. This is accomplished through batch reporting (fixed width or comma separated value formats) through an institution’s Student Aid Internet Gateway (SAIG) Mailbox or online reporting through the NSLDS Professional Access website (NSLDSFAP).

The fully integrated financial aid module in Campus Café’s Student Information System (SIS) streamlines what can be a confusing and cumbersome government reporting process. Our integrated SIS collects and compiles data for NSDLS reporting as well as other required reports for state and government agencies. In addition, it services student communication, billing and packaging related to financial aid and ensures accurate tracking of student placements and hiring metrics. Campus Café complies with federal reporting and keeps tabs on changes in regulations to ensure that the specific needs of your career or vocational school are met.

View the complete Gainful Employment User Guide >

View the Gainful Employment Operations Manual >

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The Definitive Guide to Title IV Student Financial Aid

Financial aid plays a critical role in making college an affordable option for many families, often rendering it an enrollment lifeline, particularly for smaller, tuition-driven institutions. Federal student financial assistance programs are administered by the U.S. Department of Education under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 as amended. So, whether you’re just starting the process of gaining eligibility for funding or looking to better coordinate financial aid management and reporting, understanding Title IV is a necessary starting point.

Overview of Title IV Funding

Every year, 15 million students receive $150 billion in federal student aid through the U.S Department of Education to help cover the cost of college–including hard costs like tuition and fees and room and board as well as variable costs like supplies, computers, books and transportation. These funds are distributed in a variety of forms including grants, loans and work-study programs, and are only available to eligible students enrolled in eligible programs at eligible institutions, of which there are thousands in the U.S.

Types and Disbursement of Federal Student Aid

For students, the financial aid process begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The information reported on a student’s FAFSA determines their financial aid eligibility for Title IV programs, namely grants, loans and work-study. A financial aid award letter prepared and sent by your school notifies students as to what forms of federal aid, and in what amounts, they will receive. Their full financial package might also include additional separate aid through school-administered scholarships and grants based on academic performance and other requirements.

Grants

  • Federal Pell Grant: Amounts change yearly, but the maximum award for the 2016-17 academic year is $5,815. An individual student’s award is determined by the government based on financial need, school cost and attendance plans. The Federal Pell Grant does not need to be repaid by the student.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG): Specifically for students with exceptional financial need, the SEOG awards range from $100 to $4,000 per year. The U.S. Department of Education provides a certain amount of SEOG funds to each participating school, which can offer awards based on other aid received and availability of funds. The SEOG does not need to be repaid by the student.
  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant: If your school participates in the TEACH Grant Program, students can be awarded up to $4,000 not based on need, but rather on their commitment to a career in teaching. Students must sign a TEACH Grant Agreement to Serve; if they do not fulfill the obligation, the grant is converted into a Direct Unsubsidized Loan as described below.
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant: The U.S. Department of Education provides funds to help pay for the educational expenses of students who lost a parent or guardian in military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, based on specific requirements.

Loans

Federal student loans are distributed in two categories: Direct Loans, for which the U.S. Department of Education is the lender; and Perkins Loans, for which participating schools are the lender.

  • Direct Subsidized Loan (Stafford): The U.S. Department of Education pays interest while the student is in school and during deferment and grace periods. Subsidized loans are determined by the school and cannot exceed a student’s financial need. (Loan limit: $5,500-$12,500/year)
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan (Stafford): Unsubsidized loans are not need-based and are determined by the school based on cost of attendance and other financial aid received. Students pay or accrue interest as soon as the loan is given. (Loan limit: $5,500-$12,500/year for undergraduate; up to $20,500 for graduate)
  • Direct PLUS Loans: Given to graduate or professional students or to parents of undergraduates enrolled at participating schools.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans: Students can combine multiple federal student loans into one with a single loan servicer and monthly payment.
  • Federal Perkins Loan: School-based, low-interest loans for students with exceptional financial need. (Loan limit: up to $5,500/year for undergraduate; $8,000/year for graduate)

Federal Work-Study

Administered by participating schools, federal work-study allows students to work part-time, on- or off-campus, earning at least minimum wage to help pay for college as they go.

Basic Title IV Eligibility Requirements

Institutions of higher education, proprietary institutions of higher education, and postsecondary vocational institutes can seek eligibility if they meet a series of requirements, including offering associate degrees or higher, programs acceptable toward a bachelor’s degree, or programs that prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.

Schools must demonstrate adequate administrative capacity complete with internal checks and balances, financial aid counseling, and periodic reconciliation of fiscal and financial aid offices. They must also prove financial responsibility, which is in part determined by a composite score of 1.5 or higher and sufficient cash reserves. See all requirements for eligibility >

Accreditation and Title IV

Because accreditation ensures that institutions of higher education remain accountable to a certain level of quality in terms of instruction and training, the U.S. Department of Education considers it when determining a school’s Title IV eligibility. A total of 37 regional and national accrediting agencies are currently recognized for Title IV purposes. Make sure your agency is on the list >

Managing Student Financial Aid

Meeting the eligibility requirements for ample staffing and electronic systems necessary to process and administer Title IV funds doesn’t ensure that the back-end mechanics will be easy. Once a school earns eligibility and begins participating in student financial assistance programs, the challenge of tracking and reporting data mounts.

In addition to the initial disbursement of funds, schools must also grapple with situations of over-awarding (due to a change in students’ financial situation) as well as the return of Title IV funds if a student withdraws from their planned course of study at a certain point in time. Schools must also monitor Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), and take the necessary action toward financial aid probation, and in some cases eventually financial aid suspension, for students who fail to meet the requirements.

Properly managing funds based on federal regulations is necessary for maintaining Title IV eligibility and avoiding costly lawsuits. A student information system with a fully integrated financial aid module can centralize student communication, billing, packaging and government reporting.

Title IV Application Process

Ready to apply? Use the E-App at https://eligcert.ed.gov/. In addition to your online application, you’ll need to provide documentation of state licensure, accreditation and two years of audited financial statements.

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Additional sources:

https://studentaid.ed.gov/

http://www.ed.gov/

https://eligcert.ed.gov/

https://ifap.ed.gov/ifap/byAwardYear.jsp?type=fsahandbook&awardyear=2016-2017

Higher Education Accreditation: First Things to Know

The process of accreditation is complex for institutions of higher education–and has been changing significantly over the past few years. To get a handle on the process as it is now, you should understand:

  • The effects for-profit institutions are having on accreditation
  • How the reputational balance between regional and national accreditors is changing
  • The implications of the recent ACICS collapse, and what it says about the difficulties of reputation management
  • How Title IV funds will be affected by growing student debt
  • The importance of tracking and managing student funds resulting from accreditation through a Student Information System (SIS)

The right accreditation can help you validate the value that you offer your students, particularly if you are a less-known institution without an established brand.

Who performs accreditation?

An accreditor is essentially a membership organization made up of the institutions it accredits, and standards are developed by collaboration between the accreditor and the member institutions. It’s more like being a member of a club that cares strongly about its reputation than it is like being supervised by some external agency.

Accrediting organizations must complete a review process overseen by the Department of Education (USDE) and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI). The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) also reviews accreditors, and its opinion is significant, but the USDE’s approval is key.

Accrediting organizations are either institutional, examining and certifying entire institutions, or programmatic/specialized, certifying particular professional programs.

Institutional accreditation

There are two main types of institutional accrediting organizations

  • Regional, accrediting largely academic, non-profit institutions
  • National, accrediting largely for-profit institutions, with career-oriented programs, though there are also faith-related accreditors for religious institutions.

National accreditors will accredit non-degree institutions, while regionals will not.

There are six regional accreditors, each with a long history. There also six national accreditors, one of which, ACICS has recently run into instructive trouble.

Because of the difference in emphasis, as well as concerns about less-strict standards for national accreditation, students often find trouble transferring credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited school.

Increasingly, however, more for-profits are gaining regional accreditation. And as they become members of these organizations, their influence over accreditation expectations and process will grow.

Programmatic/specialized accreditors

These certify particular professional programs. There are nearly 50 of these, with multiple accreditors for some programs. Business education, for example, has three possible accrediting organizations.

Programmatic accreditation is essential for programs such as engineering, nursing, or architecture that require professional licensing in order to practice. Some smaller programs in disciplines such as communications may choose not to seek it.

The accreditation process

To get accredited, an institution must perform an extensive self-evaluation, following the procedures of the accrediting organization. There will then be on-site surveys from the accreditor. Once accreditation is achieved, regular updates will be required, though of less intensity than the original application. All of these functions are supported by a Student Information System (SIS).

Accreditor reputation and the fate of ACICS

In September, the USDE stripped the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) of its authority to accredit schools. ACICS was the largest of the national accreditorsand was the accreditor for Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute, both troubled and now-closed for-profit institutions.

Nearly 250 institutions enrolling over half a million students now face the challenge of finding new accreditation, imperiling access to billions of federal educational dollars.

ACICS appealed this decision on October 21, 2016. No matter what the outcome, this is a sobering event for schools that depend on accreditation to maintain their viability, both in terms of reputation and in access to federal educational funds.

Schools can’t just take for granted that their accreditor is giving the best value. During the financial crisis of 2007/2008, credit rating agencies Standard & Poor’s, Fitch, and Moody’s revealed that they had not been objectively measuring the value of what they were recommending. Investors relying on their ratings suffered financial consequences.

Specific criteria for choosing an accreditor will be covered in a later post in this series.

The benefits of accreditation

In a world of many educational institutions competing for students and their associated federal educational funds, accreditation provides useful institutional discipline, participation in a community of like-minded institutions, and ability to contribute to shaping the future standards for educational excellence.

Accreditation also allows newer and smaller educational institutions who do not have the advantage of strong brand visibility, or who are striving to extend their reach, to gain visibility and validation.

And accreditation ensures the steady and predictable flow of federal education dollars, without which most higher education institutions would be unable to function.

The issue of financial aid money

Accreditation not only certifies the quality and reputation of an educational institution’it also controls the distribution of federal financial aid funds as part of Title IV.

It is impossible to recognize the impact of accreditation without understanding how much nearly every institution depends on these funds, including Pell Grants and other academic grants, Federal Family Education and other loan programs, and Federal Work-Study money. Without this funding, many institutions would need to close their doors.

The average full-time undergraduate student in the U.S. received over $2,000 in Pell Grants alone in 2013. The average student now leaves college nearly $23,000 in student-loan debt.

The impact of accreditation is significant both for each institutionand for each student. Institutions need to pay attention to the funding that comes with their students, both for their own bottom line, and to protect the interests of their students. Both of you have a lot of skin in this game.

How accreditation became as important as it is

Why do accreditors also control the flow of federal funds to post-secondary educational institutions? It’s not necessarily an automatic connection.

Before the 1950s, there were a variety of regional, voluntary membership associations that developed standards for anyone claiming to provide higher education. They cared about their reputationsand the reputations of their fellow institutions. The money involved was private money, or from occasional charitable endowments, and did not need to pay attention to accreditation if they did not choose to.

Then the WWII and Korean War GI Bills brought federal dollars to schools, followed, over the next few decades, by the various Title IV funds previously discussed. There was an increasing amount of money involved, which changed the stakes of accreditation.

Instead of creating some kind of Federal Accreditation Agency, the federal government decided instead to use the existing accreditation system to determine eligibility for these federal educational dollars. The government understood that the flexibility of the private system made it worth keeping. That is still the system in place, though government oversight has grown over time, as the amount of money at stake has increased.

Help when facing the accreditation process

A robust Student Information System (SIS) should support your accreditation efforts. Much of the information you supply to the accreditor will come straight out of your SIS. The reporting requirements are significant. Trying to do it without a good SIS can adversely affect your chances of getting accepted by a reputable accreditor. It’s well worth getting an SIS in place before starting an accreditation process.

If you fail to accurately track the Title IV funds that come along with accreditation, you can find you can find yourself subject to costly fines and lawsuits. An SIS helps ensure that the funds are applied to the appropriate tuition, mandatory fees, and housing charges.

Some of the functions you should look at when considering an SIS:

  • Data collection : does the SIS work with your existing business processes to collect and maintain data?
  • Reporting: can the SIS generate the reports required by accreditors and government agencies?
  • Operation management: will the SIS support you in monitoring student achievement, attendance, and satisfaction?

A good SIS not only supports your business operations, but helps keep your students informed, happy, and high performing. It also makes it possible to keep students up to date on the status of their grants, loans, and other sources of support, as well as recommending possible funding sources.

One step at a time

Accreditation is a long and significant process. We’ll be covering the essential steps here over the next few months, so be sure to check back regularly.

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