Components of the Institutional Report

1: Introduction to the Institutional Report: Institutional Context; Response to Previous Commission Actions

(CFR 1.1, 1.8)

This component offers a succinct history of the institution and an overview of the institution’s capacity, infrastructure, and operations. Activities such as distance education, hybrid courses, and off-campus instructional locations are integrated into this discussion. Special attention is given to significant changes since the last accreditation review, e.g., in mission, student demographics, structure, instructional modalities, finances, and other institution-level matters. This is also the place to provide a description of institutional values, the qualities of the educational experience that make graduates of this institution unique, how the institution is addressing diversity, and how it is contributing to the public good. If a theme(s) is included, it is introduced here with an explanation of how it was selected and where in the report the theme appears.

As part of this component, the institution also reviews the most recent team report and action letter and responds to Commission recommendations. As relevant, substantive change reviews, annual and interim reports, and trends or patterns of complaints against the institution, if any, may be discussed. This overview of its accreditation history, operations, strengths, and challenges can help the institution identify issues and anticipate questions that review team members may pose as the institutional review proceeds.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • What does the institution perceive as its strengths and challenges based, for example, on internal planning and evaluation?
  • How has the institution responded to earlier WSCUC recommendations?
  • How does the institution demonstrate its contribution to the public good?
  • What are the institution’s current priorities and plans?
  • How did the institution prepare for this review? Who was involved? What was the process? How did this work connect with existing priorities and projects?
  • What theme(s), if any, will be discussed and where in the report do they appear?
  • Has the institution provided any additional guidance that will help readers follow the organization of the report?

2: Compliance with Standards: Review under the WSCUC Standards and Compliance with Federal Requirements; Inventory of Educational Effectiveness Indicators

Federal law requires every institution coming under review for reaffirmation of accreditation to demonstrate that it is in compliance with the Standards and CFRs of the accrediting association. In addition, the Commission requires that the institution has in place policies and procedures considered essential for sound academic practice.

WSCUC provides two documents – Review under the WSCUC Standards and Compliance with Federal Requirements Worksheet and Inventory of Educational Effectiveness Indicators Form – to assist institutions in reflecting and reporting on their compliance with these expectations. In addition, these documents will assist institutions in identifying strengths and areas for improvement. Institutions need to complete both forms and include them among the exhibits that accompany the institutional report when it is submitted. An analysis and discussion of the institution’s self-assessment and any plans emerging from these two exercises are discussed in the narrative for this component of the institutional report.

The Review under the WSCUC Standards systematically walks the institution through each of WSCUC’s Standards, CFRs, and Guidelines. It prompts the institution to consider where it stands in relation to capacity and educational effectiveness. The required federal checklists provide the opportunity to show how it is meeting federal requirements. As part of the self-study, the Review under the WSCUC Standards and Compliance with Federal Requirements can stimulate useful conversations about the institution’s strengths, weaknesses, and future efforts.

Similarly, the Inventory of Educational Effectiveness Indicators provides assurance that every degree program has in place a system for assessing, tracking, and improving the learning of its students. This form can assist institutions in determining the extent to which they have effective assessment systems in place, and what additional components or processes they need to develop for continuous improvement. The Inventory will also be used as part of the Mid-Cycle Review, as institutions are requested to update the information for that review.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • Who participated in the Review under the WSCUC Standards and Compliance with Federal Requirements? What perspectives did different constituencies contribute?
  • What was learned from completing this worksheet? What are the institution’s strengths and challenges? What issues and areas of improvement emerged?
  • Who participated in the completion of the Inventory of Educational Effectiveness Indicators? What perspectives did different constituencies contribute?
  • What was learned from the Inventory of Educational Effectiveness Indicators? What are the institution’s strengths and challenges? What issues and areas of improvement emerged?
  • What plans are in place to address areas needing improvement? What resources, fiscal or otherwise, may be required?

3: Degree Programs: Meaning, Quality, and Integrity of Degrees

(CFRs 1.2, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.6, 2.7, 4.3)

Institutions are expected to define the meaning of the undergraduate and graduate degrees they confer and to ensure their quality and integrity. Quality) and integrity) have many definitions; in this context WSCUC understands them to mean a rich, coherent, and challenging educational experience, together with assurance that students consistently meet the standards of performance that the institution has set for that educational experience.

Traditionally, institutions have described their degrees either very generally (i.e., as something of self-evident value) or very concretely (in terms of specific degree requirements and preparation for specific professions). This component of the institutional report asks for something different: a holistic exploration of the middle ground between those two extremes, expressed in terms of the outcomes for students and the institutional mechanisms that support those outcomes. Defining the meaning of higher degrees can provide clarity for institutions, for students, and for a public that seeks to understand what unique educational experience will be had at that particular institution and what makes the investment in that experience worthwhile.

CFR 2.2 indicates that the degree as a whole should be more than the sum of its traditional parts: courses, credits, and grades. Exploring the meaning of a degree thus involves addressing questions about what the institution expects its students – undergraduates and graduates alike – to know and be able to do upon graduation, and how graduates embody the distinct values and traditions of the institution through their dispositions and future plans. It leads to analysis of how effectively courses, curricula, the co-curriculum, and other experiences are structured, sequenced, and delivered so that students achieve learning outcomes at the expected levels of performance in core competencies, in their majors or fields of specialization, in general education, and in areas distinctive to the institution. It means ensuring alignment among all these elements, and maintaining an assessment infrastructure that enables the institution to diagnose problems and make improvements when needed. Not least of all, it means developing the language to communicate clearly about the degree – what it demands and what it offers – to internal and external audiences.

Institutions may wish to draw on existing resources that can be used to understand and articulate the meaning of degrees. These include, for example, AACU’s LEAP outcomes, the VALUE rubrics (which align with the LEAP outcomes), high-impact practices (HIPS), and findings from NSSE, UCUES, CIRP, or the CSEQ (see Glossary for information on these resources). As appropriate, institution-level learning outcomes (ILOs) may also play a useful role in defining the meaning of undergraduate and graduate degrees. Identifying common outcomes at the division or school level rather than the institution level may make sense for some institutions.

Another resource is the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP). This framework describes the meaning of three postsecondary degrees: associate, baccalaureate, and master’s and defines increasingly sophisticated levels of performance in five broad areas of learning appropriate to postsecondary education. The DQP offers institutions—and the public—a point of reference and a common framework for talking about the meaning of degrees, but without prescriptions or standardization.

WSCUC does not require institutions to use any specific framework or resource in the articulation of the meaning, quality, and integrity of their degrees. Rather, institutions are encouraged to develop their own strategies for articulating the meaning of their degrees in ways that make sense for their mission, values, and student populations.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • What does it mean for a graduate to hold a degree from the institution, i.e., what are the distinctive experiences and learning outcomes? For each degree level offered, what level of proficiency is expected? What is the overall student experience? How do these outcomes flow from the mission? (CFRs 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, 2.2)
    [Note: The discussion may focus on institutional learning outcomes that apply to all degree levels, or on the meaning of the degree at each level offered, i.e., associate, baccalaureate, master’s, doctoral.]
  • What are the processes used at the institution to ensure the quality and rigor of the degrees offered? How are these degrees evaluated to assure that the degrees awarded meet institutional standards of quality and consistency? (CFRs 2.6, 2.7, 4.1, 4.3, 4.4, 4.6)
  • What was identified in the process of considering the meaning, quality, and integrity of the degrees that may require deeper reflection, changes, restructuring, etc.? What will be done as a result? What resources will be required?
  • What role does program review play in assessing the quality, meaning, and integrity of the institution’s degree programs? (CFRs 2.7, 4.1)

4: Educational Quality: Student Learning, Core Competencies, and Standards of Performance at Graduation

Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to document that students acquire knowledge and develop higher-order intellectual skills appropriate to the level of the degree earned. This documentation is a matter of validating institutional quality and providing accountability as well as setting the conditions for improvement of learning.

CFR 2.2a states that undergraduate programs must “ensure the development of core competencies including, but not limited to, written and oral communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, and critical thinking.”

The institutional review process calls upon institutions to describe how the curriculum addresses each of the five core competencies, explain their learning outcomes in relation to those core competencies, and demonstrate, through evidence of student performance, the extent to which those outcomes are achieved. If they wish, institutions may create their own limited list of essential higher-order competencies beyond the five listed. They may also report student performance in majors or professional fields and in terms of institution-level learning outcomes that make the institution’s graduates distinctive. The institution analyzes the evidence according to its own judgment, reports on student achievement of its learning outcomes in a way that makes sense for the institution (e.g., as a single score, or within ranges or qualitative categories), contextualizes the findings according to the mission and priorities of the institution, and formulates its own plans for improvement, if needed.

For example, for each core competency, the institution may set a specific level of performance expected at graduation and gather evidence of the achievement of that level of performance (which can be based on sampling) using the assessment methods of its choice.

The five core competencies listed in the Handbook are relevant in virtually any field of study, though different fields may define these outcomes in different ways and may also include other outcomes. At many institutions, it is the assessment of learning in the major or professional field that engages faculty and produces the most useful findings. Thus institutions may wish to embed assessment of core competencies in assessment of the major or professional field. Capstones, portfolios, research projects, signature assignments, internships, and comprehensive examinations provide rich evidence that can be analyzed for multiple outcomes, both specialized and common to all programs, at a point close to graduation as determined by the institution. Whatever the expectations and findings, they need to be contextualized and discussed in this component of the institutional report.

It is the institution’s responsibility to set expectations for learning outcomes that are appropriate to the institution’s mission, programs offered, student characteristics, and other criteria. The Commission is not seeking a minimum standard of performance that students would already meet upon entry or upon completion of lower-division general education courses. Nor does it seek outcomes common to all institutions irrespective of mission. Rather, the Commission seeks learning outcomes and standards of performance that are appropriately ambitious, that faculty and students can take pride in, and that can be explained and demonstrated to external audiences. If a given competency is not a priority for the institution or a particular field of study, expectations may legitimately be lower. Within the context of the institution’s mission, the review team then weighs the appropriateness of outcomes, standards, and evidence of attainment.

Standards of performance are best set through internal discussion among faculty and other campus educators. Although it is not required, institutions may benefit from external perspectives and collaboration with other institutions, e.g., through benchmarking or use of comparative data. For example, an institution may join a consortium that shares assessment findings and calibrates desired levels of performance.

Graduate programs and graduate-only institutions are expected to define and assess the generic intellectual competencies that are foundational in their field. CFR 2.2b, which refers to graduate programs, calls for expectations that are “clearly . . . differentiated from and more advanced than undergraduate programs in terms of . . . standards of performance and student learning outcomes.” Graduate programs also set standards of performance, choose assessment methods, interpret the results, and act on findings in ways that make sense for the program and institution.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • What knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes should students possess when they graduate with a degree from the institution? What are the key learning outcomes for each level of degree?
    • For undergraduate programs, how do the institution’s key learning outcomes align with the core competencies set forth in CFR 2.2a? (CFRs 2.3, 2.4.)
    • For graduate programs, how are graduate level outcomes developed? How do these outcomes align with CFR 2.2b? (CFRs 2.3, 2.4)
  • What are the standards of performance for students? How are these standards set, communicated, and validated? (CFR 2.6)
  • What methods are used to assess student learning and achievement of these standards? When is learning assessed in these areas (e.g., close to graduation or at some other milestone? (CFRs 2.4, 2.6, 4.3)
  • What evidence is there that key learning outcomes are being met? (CFR 2.6)
  • What steps are taken when achievement gaps are identified? How are teaching and learning improved as a result of assessment findings? (CFRs 2.4, 2.6, 4.3, 4.4)
  • What role does program review play in assessing and improving the quality of learning? (CFRs 2.7, 4.1)
  • How deeply embedded is learning-centeredness across the institution? What is the evidence? (CFRs 4.1-4.3)

5: Student Success: Student Learning, Retention, and Graduation

(CFRs 1.2, 2.7, 2.13)

Student success includes not only strong retention and degree completion rates, but also high-quality learning. It means that students are prepared for success in their personal, civic, and professional lives, and that they embody the values and behaviors that make their institution distinctive. Institutions’ definitions of success will differ, given their unique missions, traditions, programs, and the characteristics of the students served.

One metric for this component is WSCUC’s Graduation Rate Dashboard (GRD), which uses six data points to estimate the institution’s absolute graduation rate over time and accounts for all graduates regardless of how students matriculate (first-time or transfer, lower or upper division) or enroll (part-time, full-time, swirling), or what programs they pursue.

The GRD does not track specific cohorts of students. Institutions should also calculate direct measures of retention and graduation.

This component needs to address, explicitly, the learning and personal development dimensions of student success. Since aggregate data can mask disparities among student subpopulations, institutions are advised to disaggregate their data, going beyond demographic characteristics. For example, analysis using several variables (such as students’ choice of major, participation in research, study abroad, leadership roles, admission to honor societies, pass rates on licensure examinations, and admission to graduate programs) may yield useful information.

While student success is the responsibility of the entire institution, student affairs and academic support can play a particularly critical role. Here, too, a well-developed assessment infrastructure can provide the data to document and improve student success.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • How is student success defined (accounting for both completion and learning), given the distinctive mission, values, and programs offered, and the characteristics of the students being served? (CFRs 2.4, 2.6, 2.10, 2.13)
  • How is student success promoted, including both completion and learning? What has been learned about different student subpopulations as a result of disaggregating data? (CFRs 2.3, 2.10-2.14)
  • What role does program review play in assessing and improving student success? (CFRs 2.7, 4.1)
  • Which programs are particularly effective in retaining and graduating their majors? What can be learned from them? What is the students’ experience like? (CFRs 2.6, 2.10, 2.13)
  • How well do students meet the institution’s definition of student success? In what ways does the institution need to improve so that more students are successful? What is the timeline for improvement? How will these goals be achieved? (CFRs 2.6, 4.1-4.4)

6: Quality Assurance and Improvement: Program Review; Assessment; Use of Data and Evidence

(CFRs 2.4, 2.6, 2.7, 2.10, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6, 4.7)

Successful quality improvement efforts are broadly participatory, iterative, and evidence-based. This component of the institutional report includes a discussion of three basic tools of quality improvement—program review, assessment of student learning, and data collection and analysis—and presents the ways these tools inform the institution’s decision making. In addition, institutions are welcome to discuss other quality improvement approaches that have made a difference, if they wish.

Program review remains a priority for WSCUC. It is a natural nexus and point of integration for the collection of data and findings about the meaning of the degree, the quality of learning, core competencies, standards of student performance, retention, graduation, and overall student success. Because of the commitment of students to their degree programs and the loyalty of faculty to their disciplines, program review has great power to influence the quality of the educational experience. Program review can also provide insight into desirable future directions for the program and the institution.

In addition to implementing systematic program review, institutions are expected to periodically assess the effectiveness of their program review process. They can do so, for example, by reviewing the quality and consistency of follow-up after program reviews; determining the effectiveness with which the program review addresses achievement of program learning outcomes; and tracing how recommendations are integrated into institutional planning and budgeting.

Assessment, along with program review, is an essential tool that supports the goals and values of the accreditation process. “Assessing the assessment” should not crowd out the work of understanding student learning and using evidence to improve it. However, good practice suggests that it is wise to step back periodically, ask evaluative questions about each stage of the assessment cycle, and seek ways to make assessment more effective, efficient, and economical.

Data provide the foundation for effective program review, assessment of student learning, and other quality improvement strategies. However, to have an impact, data need to be turned into evidence and communicated in useful formats. The discussion of data collection, analysis, and use can include, for example, information about resources provided by the institutional research office (if one exists), software used to generate reports, access to data, processes for making meaning out of data (see the WSCUC Evidence Guide for more information), and mechanisms for communicating data and findings.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • How have the results of program review been used to inform decision making and improve instruction and student learning outcomes? (CFRs 2.7, 4.1, 4.3, 4.4)
  • What was identified in the process of examining the institution’s program review process that may require deeper reflection, changes, restructuring? What will be done as a result? What resources will be required? (CFRs 2.7, 4.1, 4.4, 4.6)
  • What has the program or institution learned as it carried out assessments of students’ learning? How have assessment protocols, faculty development, choices of instruments, or other aspects of assessment changed as a result? (CFR 4.1)
  • How adequate is the institutional research function? How effectively does it support and inform institutional decision-making, planning, and improvement? How well does it support assessment of student learning? (CFRs 4.2-4.7)

7: Sustainability: Financial Viability; Preparing for the Changing Higher Education Environment

(CFRs 3.4, 3.7, 4.1, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6, 4.7)

To survive and thrive, institutions must not only cope with the present, but also plan for the future. In this component, WSCUC asks each institution first to describe its current status as a viable, sustainable organization; and second, to evaluate how it is poised to address fundamental changes facing higher education in the decade to come. In other words, what is the institution’s vision of a 21st century education, and what role will the institution play?

At its most basic, sustainability means the ability to support and maintain, to keep something intact and functioning properly. Institutional sustainability has at least two dimensions. Fiscal sustainability – that is, adequacy of financial resources and the appropriate alignment of those resources – is fundamental and has always been critical in any institutional review. Indeed, financial exigency has historically been regional accreditors’ single most frequent cause for sanctions. In a highly volatile financial environment, assurance of financial sustainability becomes even more critical.

In this component, the institution presents its current financial position. If the Financial Review Committee has raised any issues or made recommendations, then the institution presents its response in this section of the report. Plans should include targets, metrics, and timelines.

A second facet of financial sustainability is alignment. It is essential that resources be allocated in alignment with the institution’s priorities. For an educational institution, clearly, a top priority is student learning and success; thus resource allocation needs to support educational effectiveness, along with other activities that advance knowledge, develop human capital, and allow the institution to learn, adapt, and thrive.

A third dimension of sustainability is the institution’s ability to read the evolving higher education landscape and anticipate ways in which the institution itself may need to change. New technologies, economic pressures, public concern about the quality of learning, demographic shifts, student preparation for college, new skills and knowledge needed for success, and alternatives to traditional degrees—all these shifts and many others are rapidly transforming the social, economic, and political environment in which higher education functions.

The task here is for institutions to develop a vision of their role in 21st century higher education. The choices institutions make in the face of these bracing conditions will influence their long-term success.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • Under Standard 3, institutions are expected to “develop and apply resources and organizational structures to ensure sustainability.” How can the institution demonstrate that its operations will remain financially sustainable over the next 6 to 10 years? (CFRs 3.4 and 4.6)
  • How well do financial allocations align with institutional priorities, particularly those related to the meaning, quality, and integrity of degrees offered; student learning and success; and processes for quality assurance, accountability, and improvement? (CFRs 3.4, 4.3)
  • Under Standard 2, how does the institution identify and enhance the competencies that students will need to succeed in the future? (CFRs 1.2, 2.2)
  • What role does program review play in developing a vision of 21st century education for individual programs and for the institution as a whole? (CFR 4.7)
  • In what ways can the institution ensure that educational effectiveness will continue during the period from the present to the next reaffirmation of accreditation? What systems and processes are in place? How deeply embedded are these initiatives in institutional systems and culture? How is educational effectiveness prioritized in the institution’s formal plans? (CFRs 3.1-3.10, 4.1, 4.2, 4.6)
  • How does the institution demonstrate that it is a learning organization? What evidence can be put forward? (CFRs 4.3-4.7)
  • What resources have been committed to assessment of learning and improvement of student performance? How are decisions about levels of support made? How is support maintained even in times of constrained resources? (CFRs 3.6, 3.7, 4.3, 4.4)
  • Of the changes taking place globally, nationally, locally, and in higher education, which ones will affect the institution most strongly in the next seven to 10 years? What is the institution’s vision of education for the coming decade? For the more distant future? How is the institution anticipating, planning for, and adapting to such changes? (CFRs 4.6, 4.7)
  • What specific skills does the institution possess or need to develop in order to engage with developments impacting its future, including those occurring globally? (CFRs 3.1, 3.2, 4.6, 4.7)

8: Institution-specific Theme(s) (optional)

(CFRs as appropriate)

The accreditation review is an opportunity for institutions to align their own priorities with WSCUC’s quality improvement process. In the 2001 Handbook, the theme-based approach to self-study offered institutions the clearest opportunity for this kind of campus-wide engagement and improvement, and the vast majority of institutions took advantage of it. Thus the 2013 Handbook continues to offer this option. In addition to addressing the components described above, institutions may identify and study one or two themes that are specific to the institution and of critical importance. The theme may emerge from institutional planning or other processes; in any case, it should connect to the Standards.

If the institutional report includes a theme, the component on institutional context is the place to introduce the theme and orient the reader to the part(s) of the institutional report where the theme will be developed. Origins of the theme, analysis, recommendations for action, and related steps can be included as a separate component of the institutional report, or the theme can be woven into one of the other components, as appropriate. Whatever the institution decides, it is helpful to inform the WSCUC staff liaison of the theme early on, so that an individual with relevant background can be included on the review team.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • What one or two themes would advance institutional priorities and add value to the accreditation review?
  • What are the institution’s goals or outcomes in pursuing this theme? What is the timeline, what evidence and metrics will show progress, and what resources (financial, human, other) will be required?

9: Conclusion: Reflection and Plans for Improvement

In this concluding component, the institution assesses the impact of the self-study, reflects on what it has learned in the course of the self-study, and discusses what it plans to do next. This is also the place to highlight what the institution has learned about key areas of exemplary institutional performance.


Exhibits are attached to the institutional report and support the narrative. By being selective about what to include, an institution can avoid excessive documentation, which can be challenging for institutions to collect and for review team members and the Commission to read.

The exhibits include the following items:

  1. Completed Review under the WSCUC Standards and Compliance with Federal Requirements Worksheet
  2. Completed Inventory of Educational Effectiveness Indicators Form
  3. Institution-selected exhibits that support the institutional report’s narrative.