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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5 Ways A Student Information System Saves You Money

Sometimes it can be hard to quantify the value of a Student Information System (SIS). You know you need one because it provides necessary user interfaces and critical data for strategic decision making, but does it really translate to the bottom line, and save the institution valuable costs and resources?

The answer is a definitive yes. Intuitively, it’s impossible to imagine running an organization effectively without one. The most obvious tangible benefit is the number of man-hours saved from an integrated student information system rather than tracking information in spreadsheets (or multiple databases that don’t talk to each other). But more specifically, I’ve outlined 5 instances where an integrated student softwarewill directly save your institution money or bring more revenue in the door.

#1. Mastery of Government Funding & Federal Reporting

We don’t have to tell you, but a recent report by the GAO (1) found that the government requirements for student financial aid were the a�?most burdensomea�? on colleges and universities, costing hundreds of man-hours and untold dollars to compile. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators echoed this, saying that handling governance took so much time it left less opportunity for counselors to meet in person with students.

Given the immense sums involved it doesn’t appear these regulations are going anywhere, so it’s best for institutions of higher education to develop ways to minimize the burden. Paramount to this is a good student information system.

An SIS will help collect and compile the data for all the required reports for state and government agencies. These include IPEDS, Title IV/NSDLS, Graduate-to-Employment reports, as well as accreditation with some of the requirements outlined here.

IPEDS

The data collected by the Independent Post-secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) covers seven areas: institutional characteristics, institutional prices, enrollment, student financial aid, degrees and certificates conferred, student persistence and success, institutional human and fiscal resources.

Some of the data that a student information system will have available in real-time for these reports is

  • enrollment by state, age, ethnicity
  • graduate completions by field of study
  • retention and graduation rates
  • faculty and staff demographic data
  • revenues and expenditures

Title IV

The process for administering student financial aid is defined under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. The regulations change annually and a school is responsible for understanding each student’s eligibility for the various grants and loans including, Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (SEOG), Federal Teacher Education Assistance for College & Higher Education Grant (TEACH), Federal Direct Stafford Loans ‘ Subsidized, Unsubsidized, Grad PLUS and Parent PLUS etc.

Federal regulations require all schools to apply Title IV financial aid funds to tuition, mandatory fees, housing charges and book deferments.

If these federal funds aren’t tracked and applied to student charges correctly it could be costly in terms of fines and lawsuits. A fully integratedschool managementsystem will either handle all the Title IV reporting or tightly integrate with Title IV specialty software.

The other area that a student information system becomes vital is for the calculations required for meeting Title IV eligibility. In recent years new regulations have been instituted for graduate to employment rates and now institutions must certify that each of their gainful employment programs meets the accreditation requirements.

#2. Increase Student Retention

In a prior post on student retention I describe in detail all the ways a student information system can help keep more students enrolled.

This is of great importance since upwards of 30% of students won’t reach completion. When a student drops out, additional funds must be expended to attract and enroll the next student, in addition to the opportunity cost of future revenue.

Without a strong retention program, cost and reputation become central issues. A good student information system with retention scoring, degree auditing, judicial tracking, student attendance and grade book can make all the difference.

For more on how these features help your retention program check out my post, An Integrated Student Information System is Your Best Friend for Retaining Students.

#3. Integrated Data for Better Decisions

Probably the most important way an SIS saves money for your institution is by giving users real-time access to student recordswithout requiring extra resources. Some small to mid-sized schools fall into a trap of purchasing separate school management systems for admissions or student retention and find they need additional man-hours for keeping the data in sync across all departments.

A bigger issue is schools who already have an SIS but purchase the latest new stand-alone software (admissions, for example) with a slick new user interface, hoping to integrate it with their existing SIS. Unfortunately, they realize afterwards the added costs required to maintain both systems outweigh the benefits, and often they plot a costly new course with additional software, training and implementation expenses.

For more details on why this can be a mistake check out, Student Management Software ‘ Integrated ERP or Best of Breed.

#4. More Effective Recruiting

The cost of recruiting a student who eventually enrolls is over $2,400 (2). So all the time and money planning, managing and measuring the recruiting and admissions programs shouldn’t be wasted. The distribution of texts, emails and letters that are well tracked in a workflow that triggers automatic follow up is essential to an efficient recruiting operation.

While efficiency of operations is beneficial, what’s more important is how effective the recruiting operation is at finding and attracting the right candidates. An SIS with a robust admissions module will offer key insights into outreach programs that bear the most fruit and provide the tools for admissions counselors to focus on the most receptive candidates to grow enrollments.

#5. Better Accountability and Fraud Prevention

When mistakes or errors occur, it can be difficult to determine the source. If it’s an honest mistake you want to identify it so it can be rectified. Schools are under increasing scrutiny to guard against unauthorized or malicious activity and need tools to quickly identify areas of concern.

In either case the goal is to hold people working in the system accountable for their actions. That’s why a robust student information system will have an in-depth audit trail and user permission system that allows granular access and records of all changes.

Mistakes can occur when individuals are given access to areas they don’t need, so they inadvertently make a change to something they don’t understand. Robust controls are the key to accountability. User awareness that the system keeps tabs on all activity is a strong incentive for good behavior and accurate recording of data.

Conclusion

Institutions should routinely examine their school administration systems to ensure that they are providing a strategic advantage. If the system is not providing a high level of service or does not provide accurate and easy to obtain reporting, then alternatives should be investigated. The costs associated with poor recruitment, retention, reporting, and accountability may outweigh the cost of replacement. Return on investment should always be measured against these costs to keep your organization running smoothly and efficiently.

Any questions?Contact Us

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About the Author

Joe Stefaniak has been a leading expert for almost 30 years in the development and implementation of software solutions for higher education. His expertise is in helping colleges and schools streamline operations and manage information for better decision making through analysis and application of best practice software. He founded SCAN Business Systems in 1986. Its flagship product, Campus Café, has grown into a leading provider of educational student information systems. He holds a degree in Business Administration from Northeastern University.

Sources:

  1. The Hechinger Report
  2. NACAC Admission Trends Survey, 2012.

Student Management Software – Integrated ERP or Best of Breed

Deciding on a single fully-integrated ERP system or multiple Best-of-Breeds?

For educational institutions, performing tasks like nurturing prospects, providing portals for students and faculty, maintaining ongoing relationships with graduates while managing financial operations and compliance regulations presents challenges that require a significant investment in student management software. Each task is part of a separate functional area with distinct processes and needs for collecting and utilizing data.

Selecting the best student information software to manage these disparate operations will involve a complex set of decisions. There is never a perfect solution, so prioritizing what’s most important is critical, since compromises must be made.

The final decision always comes down to a choice between either one fully integrated system software or multiple niche’ software systems, a.k.a. Best of Breed (B.O.B.). Either choice offers positives and negatives that should be weighed against the goals of your organization and the available technology resources.

A Fully-Integrated Information System

The main distinguishing benefit of a fully-integrated student information system is that it utilizes a single database for the entire organization. If implemented correctly, each individual has a single file housing all their information, which means all the data about that person is typically accessible in real time. Since all information is entered into a single system, the back-end inner workings are relatively seamless and the data integrity is usually very good. But there is a downside.

A fully-integrated system is very broad in functionality, fulfilling a wide range of needs for the organization. But like any software, it’s difficult to do everything well and in order to maintain this seamlessness for the full scope of the organization (which is no small task) other aspects of the system are usually de-prioritized. In most cases what you’ll find lacking are the user experience and some specific features that are not critical or essential for the majority of their customers.

A Fully-integrated ERP System: The Pros and Cons

Below I’ve listed the most important benefits and drawbacks to consider when comparing a fully-integrated ERP with B.O.B. software.

Benefits

  1. More accurate and complete data.

  2. Consistent processes throughout the student lifecycle.

  3. Lower maintenance costs due to common architecture.

  4. A single user interface throughout the system.

  5. The overall Total Cost of Ownership is usually lower due to a unified business process.

  6. Single vendor is more accountable for solving issues.

  7. Fewer training costs due to common architecture.

  8. Subject-matter expertise levels are reached faster for the chosen technology.

  9. Single platform decreases evaluation, testing, proof of concept, and time to deployment.

  10. Economies of scale may afford opportunities for bundled (more price-competitive) license fees.

Drawbacks

  1. Risk of sole reliance on one vendor.

  2. Risk outdated technology and features.

  3. Less flexibility when adding new features and functionality.

  4. Downtime affects the entire system.

  5. Increased control and permissions required to ensure institutional data integrity.

Best-of-Breed Software

A best of breed system has the advantage of focus. These systems specialize in smaller functional areas like Admissions or Financial Aid and the features, user experience and look are built without much consideration for the other operational aspects of the organization. The features and functions are focused on user experience with added bells and whistles, but there is a significant downside: data integrity and accessibility.

Utilizing multiple database systems usually runs the high risk of information getting stuck in silos inaccessible to other parts of the organization when they need it, or the creation of multiple incomplete records for a single individual. For an organization to operate effectively it’s important that the information is complete, accurate and accessible and it can be a challenge getting multiple B.O.B software tools to operate together.

In an educational organization, there is no more dramatic example of this than the admissions department.

Best-of-Breed Software for Admissions

Admissions departments are under pressure to increase the pool of quality prospects. New marketing technologies seem to emerge every day with the promise of finding and attracting new prospects. The problem with adopting such new technology is the usual suspect: data integration.

Many inbound marketing technologies have two weaknesses, one they’re industry agnostic and don’t have all the specific admissions functionality like (application tracking, financial aid, transfer credit eval etc). Also these tools generally use implicit data with limited biographical information to find, track, and nurture prospective students. All student records should have a unique identifier (Name/DOB or SSN) to tie the data together. For many standalone marketing or admissions products, a cookie or email address is often used as the unique identifier. The problem is that cookies and email addresses change frequently based on who is performing the search or what computer/phone performs the request. Therefore the data does not lend itself to later integrating with the student information database because by its nature, it contains little actual biographical data about the person to match up.

Since this data cannot easily be integrated into the ERP system, the organization is faced with some difficult choices.

  1. Either, use the best of breed software for the entire admissions cycle which means specific functions like common application, Department of Ed integration, financial aid, transfer credit evaluation, and many other necessary functions are not available.

  2. Another choice is to manually enter, batch upload, de-dupe and correct the data. This can be very labor intensive and usually yields only an 80-90% accuracy rate.

  3. The third approach is to not integrate the best-of-breed software at all. Just import data into it and take advantage of its strengths and let it function in a silo.

Best-of-Breed Software for Financial Analysis

The Accounting/Finance department is the other place where B.O.B software is often found. This does not present a problem if the data from the ERP is only exported to the B.O.B tool for analysis and reporting.

However, there is often a temptation to create a shadow system where the financial package is maintained and synced manually with the ERP. This always presents a problem, since these departments usually require immediate access to real-time data for critical strategic decisions and there can be a lag between one system synchronizing with the other. There’s also the added man hours required to keep both up to date that should be factored in.

Best-of-Breed Software: The Pros and Cons

Below I’ve listed the most important benefits and drawbacks to consider when evaluating B.O.B software.

Benefits

  1. Ability to choose the most feature rich product and latest technology for each department.

  2. Industry familiarity.

  3. Greater flexibility for replacing software modules.

  4. Maintenance and upgrades can be performed module by module without disrupting the entire system.

  5. Easier to implement a smaller department more quickly.

  6. Avoids single vendor dependence.

  7. Allows each department to operate independently of a centrally administered system.

  8. Often involves lower initial costs through more competitive licensing fees.

Drawbacks

  1. Added complexity of multiple systems, multiple databases and multiple vendors.

  2. High potential for data integrity issues, duplicate data, missing data, incomplete records.

  3. Increased costs from data warehousing, complex networking.

  4. Integration points must be continuously updated and maintained.

  5. Increased difficulty troubleshooting due to added complexity and finger-pointing from multiple vendors.

  6. Multiple user interfaces increases training costs and confusion.

  7. Difficult to get a complete set of reports in a timely manner.

  8. Duplication of effort (e.g. address change must be entered into several databases).

  9. Architectural complexity creates high downstream costs to integrate and maintain diverse systems.

  10. Testing and running proof-of-concept trials involving disparate platforms and architectures increases time to deployment.

  11. Higher training costs; team members rarely achieve subject-matter expertise levels across every technology.

  12. Higher risks, as incompatible product road maps may create unforeseen disruptions, such as one vendor opting to stop supporting another vendor’s products.

  13. Lack of coordinated effort at shaping vendor roadmap for organization-wide functionality.

Mapping a software’s strengths and weaknesses to your priorities

Like with any software decision, it’s good to determine whether the strengths of the vendor aligns with your organizational priorities. The a�?must havesa�? should map to the vendor strengths and the vendor’s weaknesses should be similar to the a�?can live withouta�?.

The major areas to consider for making these decisions can be broken down into:

  • Data accuracy – How correct is the information?

  • Efficient operations – How much time will be saved?

  • Data accessibility – Can I get the information when I need it?

  • User experience – How easy is the system to use?

  • Cost – What is the return on investment *?

The following chart compares the strengths and weaknesses of a fully integrated system or B.O.B. software by evaluating data accuracy, efficient operations, data accessibility, user experience and cost, as it relates to the entire organization and a specific department. This is not scientific and can vary by organization but it serves as a good rule of thumb.

Bob Chart.JPG

Conclusion

Even after all this assessment, there are other factors that can tend to add further complexity. Competing interests are usually at play where a department will favor a best-of-breed over an integrated system, even though it might not be the best choice when considering the bigger long-term picture.

It is important with any software choice that the organizational buys into the decision. A lack of buy-in may otherwise undermine any potential productivity gains.

The evaluation should always include an understanding of the level of integration that can be achieved especially from a technical standpoint since the other variables are subjective. The best way to do this is to look at other institutions and look at the support mechanism for user support, data integration, data warehousing needs, and institutional reporting. If all of these are being provided at a high level without large staff investments, then the solution should be considered.

Any questions?Contact Us

Sign up for a Free Online Demonstration of Campus Café

About the Author

Joe Stefaniak has been a leading expert for almost 30 years in the development and implementation of software solutions for higher education. His expertise is in helping colleges and schools streamline operations and manage information for better decision making through analysis and application of best practice software. He founded SCAN Business Systems in 1986. Its flagship product, Campus Café, has grown into a leading provider of educational student information systems. He holds a degree in Business Administration from Northeastern University.

Footnote

* It is extremely difficult to actually compare the return on investment and total cost of ownership of an integrated system vs a best-of-breed approach. But the variables to include are:

  • Staffing levels and/or savings based on ERP approach.

  • Productivity gains or losses based on which approach is chosen.

  • Cultural issues sometimes referred to as turf issues.

  • User bias and/or lack of buy in which can undermine the efficiency of any organization.