Every eight years, Swarthmore must evaluate their quality of education to be approved by Middle States, a Philadelphia-based accreditation organization. The school’s most recent cycle of reaccreditation began last year and will continue into 2019, during which time the college reports on aspects of its work, ranging from the effectiveness of the curriculum and the college’s mission to the student experience and institutional integrity.
Accreditation ensures that institutions of higher learning are meeting expectations put in place by a private organization. Although the mandatory process is tedious and labor-intensive, the parties involved see it as an opportunity for the college to reflect on its institutional goals and constant improvement.
The process is overseen by co-chairs political science professor Carol Nackenoff and director of institutional research and assessment Robin Shores and a Core Committee, comprised of Provost Tom Stephenson, Dean of Students Liz Braun, Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown, General Counsel Assistant Secretary of the college Sharmaine Bradham LaMar.
Middle States recently condensed the number of standards an institution must create and adhere to from 14 to seven. These standards include “Mission and Goals,” “Ethics and Integrity,” “Design and Delivery of the Student Learning Experience,” “Support of the Student Experience,” “Educational Effectiveness Assessment,” “Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement,” and “Governance, Leadership, and Administration.” To tackle this, the process leaders assigned a working group, comprised of several students, faculty, staff, and sometimes board members, to each standard.
The college must also prove that they meet the 15 requirements of affiliation imposed by Middle States. Most of these fit under a standard, the co-chairs reported, but to handle the unmapped requirements of affiliation, an eighth working group was created.
According to the college’s website, last year, Middle States approved a Self Study that outlined the college’s standards and set up for the completed report. This year, the Core Committee is aiding the working groups in finalizing their respective reports up for review next year. This includes reviewing materials, gathering input, analyzing findings, and writing a final report.
Nackenoff and Shores agreed that even after decades of grappling with the accreditation process, it still requires a tremendous amount of work. The co-chairs reported that they spend a quarter to half of their time every day working on the process, averaging 10 hours a week, including summers, because of the ever-changing process and ever-changing college.
“We do self-reflection and self-assessment periodically because we want to always be improving,” Shores said. “The institution evolves, and we should be continuing to reflect on how we are doing.”
Nackenoff called the process a catalyst for valuable self-evaluation that might not normally have been be prioritized.
“It’s a great opportunity for members of the community to reflect on where we are in terms of meeting our goals and aspirations and to think about areas where improvement might be appropriate,” she said. “You take what you learn and feed back into discussions on how you can do better in these different domains. This process of using feedback to improve is the point of assessment, and it is ongoing.”
Nackenoff said that although she doesn’t believe the college’s accreditation is in jeopardy, it’s important to take the process seriously. She added that scheduling meetings is the hardest part of the process.
“The timetable is pretty ruthless,” she said, referring to the three years allotted to complete the process. “It made us pretty nervous. There is not much room for slippage.”
Braun mentioned a different difficulty.
“I think the most challenging part is managing just the sheer volume of information that needs to be collected, analyzed, and digested into a coherent report,” she said.
Despite the difficult work that still remains, Shore said that a great part of the process is watching different community members learn and engage together.
“For students, faculty, staff, and board members to work together and learn about the college has been a really great opportunity,” she said.