Part I: The 2013 Handbook and WSCUC Accreditation

Introduction

The Commission

WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) is a California nonprofit public benefit corporation established for the purposes of accrediting senior colleges and universities in the region.

WSCUC was originally formed on July 1, 1962 to evaluate and accredit schools, colleges, and universities in California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Three separate accrediting commissions serve this region: one for K-12 schools (ACS WASC), one for community and junior colleges (ACCJC), and one for senior colleges and universities (WSCUC).

WSCUC has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as a reliable authority concerning the quality of education provided by member institutions of higher education offering the associate degree, baccalaureate degree and post-baccalaureate degrees.

The Handbook

The WSCUC 2013 Handbook of Accreditation is intended to serve a variety of readers: representatives of institutions accredited by the Commission and those seeking accreditation; chairs and members of review teams; those interested in establishing good practices in higher education; and the general public. The 2013 Handbook has been designed to serve several purposes: to present the Commission’s Core Commitments and Standards of Accreditation; to guide institutions through the institutional review process; and to assist review teams at each stage of review. Each major section is designed to stand alone; at the same time, it fits within the larger framework of the 2013 Handbook as a whole. A glossary is included to clarify terminology.

In this Handbook, in all related documents referred to in the Handbook, and in documents posted on the WSCUC website:

  • All simple uses of “the Commission” are intended as references to the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).
  • All simple uses of “the Handbook” are intended as references to the WSCUC 2013 Handbook of Accreditation.
  • All simple uses of “the Standards” are intended as references to the WSCUC Standards of Accreditation.

The Commission reserves the right to make changes to the 2013 Handbook and all related policies and procedures at any time, in order to comply with new federal requirements or in response to new needs in the region. Institutions should refer to the website www.wscuc.org for the most recent versions of all publications.

The 2013 Handbook is copyrighted with a Creative Commons license (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike) that allows sharing and remixing with attribution, but does not allow the work to be used for commercial purposes. It is the Commission’s goal that through wide dissemination and application, the Standards and processes in this model of accreditation may inform and contribute to improved reviews and institutional practices.

The 2013 Handbook is part of a more comprehensive system of support provided by the Commission. Supplementary information in the form of policies, guides, and associated documentation is available on the Commission’s website and should be read in conjunction with this Handbook. The Commission welcomes suggestions for improvement of this Handbook and ways to make it, and the accreditation process itself, more useful to institutions, students, and members of the public.


The Changing Context for Accreditation

A hallmark of U.S. higher education in the 21st century is the enormous diversity of its institutions, their missions, and the students they serve. Common across this diversity, however, is a widespread understanding that higher education represents both a public good and a private benefit. According to this understanding, higher education fosters individual development and serves the broader needs of the society and nation. Higher education has created the conditions for improving quality of life, solving problems, and enabling hope, which are essential to supporting economic prosperity and sustaining democracy in the United States. Accreditation is committed to the application of standards of performance, while affirming that high-quality education, irrespective of the different purposes of individual institutions, is in itself a contribution to the public good.

Accreditation has changed in form and substance as it has adapted to continuous social changes, increased global interdependence, and dramatic developments in information and communication technologies. The revisions to the Standards and institutional review process (IRP) described in this 2013 Handbook have occurred within the context of these factors and reflect accreditation’s responsibility to assure the public that institutions act with integrity, yield high-quality educational outcomes, and are committed to continuous improvement. Like earlier editions, the 2013 Handbook is the culmination of years of exploration and commitment on the part of institutions and stakeholders from across the WSCUC region.

The 2001 Handbook represented a significant break with the past, updating the formula for the review process and yielding a more engaged and creative endeavor. In doing so, it was a product of its times. The late 1990s was a period in which higher education embraced many important innovations—active and student-centered pedagogies, an explosion of educational technology, new roles for faculty, and new organizational forms. The approach to accreditation represented by the 2001 Handbook and the 2008 Handbook revisions reflected these conditions by creating a set of standards and an institutional review process that put teaching and learning at the center through the core commitment to educational effectiveness. At the same time, institutions were encouraged to harness accreditation as a means to advance their own goals and priorities.

The 2013 Handbook preserves and incorporates these values, even as additional factors in the operating environment for higher education demand attention. Students and their success continue to stand at the center of concerns about higher education accreditation. Thus accreditation seeks to establish standards and measurements of quality that ensure that students earn degrees in a timely manner, and that those degrees have demonstrable meaning and currency within the society at large. That meaning should also extend to graduates’ ability to be engaged citizens and to obtain productive employment.

A new context for higher education has formed the backdrop for the 2013 Handbook. Colleges and universities have been under increasing pressure to become more accountable for student academic achievement; to be more transparent in reporting the results of accreditation; and to demonstrate their contribution to the public good. Accounting for quality is a matter of public trust, given the billions of dollars government provides higher education through direct investment in institutions, federal and state financial aid for students, and tax exemptions for public and non-profit institutions. These factors lie behind the Commission’s decision to rebalance the dual role of accreditation to support both public accountability and institutional improvement.

Another critical factor is the deteriorating fiscal environment within which colleges and universities must operate. Diminishing public funding for higher education and escalating operating costs have put pressure on public and private institutions alike. The 2013 Handbook responds to financial concerns by establishing a more focused review process that shortens the time required for reaccreditation, while still providing adaptability in the review process.

With these revisions, the Commission calls upon institutions to take the next step on the assessment journey: moving from a focus on creating assessment infrastructure and processes to a focus on results and the findings about the quality of learning that assessment generates. Institutions are also asked to move from productive internal conversations about improving learning to engaging more deeply with other institutions and higher education organizations.


The Purposes of WSCUC Accreditation

The overriding purpose of WSCUC accreditation is to assure stakeholders that a WSCUC-accredited institution has been rigorously evaluated and that it meets or exceeds the criteria required to maintain accreditation. In addition, the accreditation process is designed to build a culture of evidence, promote a commitment to institutional improvement, validate institutional integrity, and provide feedback that improves the accreditation process itself.

WSCUC is one of seven regional accrediting agencies. Regional accreditation serves to assure the educational community, parents, students, employers, policymakers, and the public that an accredited institution has met high standards of quality and effectiveness. Students attending accredited institutions may be eligible to apply for U.S. federal financial aid. Accreditation also helps ensure that credits and degrees are generally recognized for purposes of transfer, admission to other institutions, and employment. 

In many countries, the maintenance of educational standards is a governmental function; in the U.S., by contrast, accreditation is peer-driven and accrediting associations are funded by the dues of member institutions. Review teams comprising experts and representatives from similar institutions evaluate an institution for initial or reaffirmation of accreditation. No institution in the U.S. is required to seek accreditation, but because of the recognized benefits of the process, most eligible institutions have sought to become accredited.


Commission Code of Good Practice and Ethical Conduct

In carrying out its functions, the WASC Senior College and University Commission has established a code of good practice and ethical conduct that guides its relations with the institutions it serves and with its internal organization and procedures. The Commission maintains a commitment to:

  1. Apply with good faith effort its procedures and standards as fairly and consistently as possible.
  2. Provide means by which institutions and others can comment on the effectiveness of the accreditation review process, standards, and policies, and to conduct ongoing and regular reviews to make necessary changes.
  3. Provide institutions and the general public with access to non-confidential information regarding Commission actions and opportunities to make informed comment in the development of commission policies (see Public Access to the Commission Policy).
  4. Encourage continuing communication between the Commission and institutions through the accreditation liaison officer position at each institution.
  5. Maintain and implement a conflict of interest policy for members of review teams, members of the Commission, and Commission staff to ensure fairness and avoid bias.
  6. Value the wide diversity of institutions within its region and consider an institution’s purpose and character when applying the Standards.
  7. Assist and stimulate improvement in its institutions’ educational effectiveness.
  8. Provide institutions a reasonable period of time to comply with Commission requests for information and documents.
  9. Endeavor to protect the confidentiality of an institution’s proprietary information.
  10. With respect to the accreditation review process:
    1. Emphasize the value and importance of institutional self-evaluation and the development of appropriate evidence to support the accreditation review process.
    2. Conduct reviews using qualified peers under conditions that promote impartial and objective judgment and avoid conflicts of interest.
    3. Provide institutions an opportunity to object, for cause, to the assignment of a person to the institution’s review team.
    4. Arrange for interviews with administration, faculty, students, and governing board members during the accreditation review process.
  11. With respect to Commission decisions on an institution’s accreditation, provide opportunity for the institution to:
    1. Respond in writing to draft team reports in order to correct errors of fact and propose redaction of proprietary information.
    2. Respond in writing to final team reports on issues of substance.
    3. Appear before the Commission when reports are considered.
    4. Receive written notice from Commission staff as soon as reasonably possible after Commission decisions are made.
    5. Appeal Commission actions according to published procedures.
  12. Request a written response from an institution or refer a matter to the next review team when the Commission finds that an institution may be in violation of the Standards or policies. If the Commission requests the institution to respond and the Commission deems such response inadequate, Commission staff may request supplemental information or schedule a fact-finding visit to the institution. The institution will bear the expense of such a visit. 
  13. Permit withdrawal of a request for initial accreditation at any time prior to final action by the Commission.
  14. Withdraw accreditation or candidacy as provided in the Accreditation Handbook.

The Status of Accreditation

The status of accreditation indicates that an institution has fulfilled the requirements for accreditation established by this Handbook. This means that the institution has:

  1. Demonstrated that it meets the Core Commitments.
  2. Conducted a self-review under the Standards, developed and presented indicators of institutional performance, and identified areas for improvement.
  3. Developed approved institutional reports for accreditation that have been evaluated by teams of reviewers under the relevant institutional review processes.
  4. Demonstrated to the Commission that it meets or exceeds the expectations of the Standards.
  5. Committed itself to institutional improvement, periodic self-evaluation, and continuing compliance with the Standards, policies, procedures, and decisions.

Accreditation is attained following the evaluation of the entire institution and continues until formally withdrawn. It is subject, however, to periodic review and to conditions, as determined by the Commission. Every accredited institution files an Annual Report, provides information for a Mid-Cycle Review, and undergoes a comprehensive self-review and peer review at least every ten years. Initial accreditation, as a matter of Commission policy, requires institutional self-review and peer review no more than six years after the date of the Commission action granting such status. Neither accreditation nor candidacy is retroactive. (Under certain circumstances, the Commission may set the effective date of accreditation up to six months prior to the Commission’s action. See How to Become Accredited on the Commission website.)

As a voluntary, nongovernmental agency, the Commission does not have the responsibility to exercise the regulatory control of state and federal governments or to apply their mandates regarding collective bargaining, affirmative action, health and safety regulations, and the like. Furthermore, the Commission does not enforce the standards of specialized accrediting agencies, the American Association of University Professors, or other nongovernmental organizations, although institutions may wish to review the publications of such agencies as part of the self-review process. The Commission has its own Standards and expects institutions and teams to apply them with integrity, flexibility, and an attitude of humane concern for students and the public interest.

The Standards apply to all institutions in the region. The Standards must be met at least at a minimum level for Candidacy to be granted to institutions seeking initial accreditation. For institutions to be granted initial accreditation and for those seeking reaffirmation of accreditation, the Standards must be met at a substantial level. The Standards define normative expectations and characteristics of excellence and provide a framework for institutional self-review. Depending upon the stage of development of the institution, some components of the Standards may be viewed as of greater or lesser priority.