SM: Can you synthesize what it takes to achieve regional accreditation?
WB: You must have a commitment and affirmation to a mission. They look at your institution mission and they verify that you are truly committed to it. Your actions must confirm your adherence to that mission. It does not matter if you are a for-profit or non-profit. They want to see what the mission is and that you as an institution, on a daily basis, govern yourself by that mission. Our mission was educating those who serve.
They could see when they came to visit that we were passionate about providing courses and programs that were tailored primarily to the military as well as some civilian sectors such as law enforcement and fire and emergency management. They look for transparent governance and ensure that there are no hidden agendas. They want to make sure that one person does not control the institution. They look for a collaborative process in how the institution says it is governed and how it is perceived as being governed by faculty, students, and staff.
They look at your public outreach and commitment to community service. Regional accrediting bodies believe that institutions should not be isolated in an ivory tower; rather they should be participative and engaged with their local communities and the communities they serve. In our particular case it was not just about where we were physically located in Charlestown but about how we were reaching out to the military communities and families globally.
Accrediting bodies also look at learning outcomes. They have been looking at this for over 10 years. Unfortunately, if I look at some of the weaknesses one would be that they were much stricter, in regards to learning outcomes, with new institutions than they were on existing institutions. Once you are accredited you get re-accredited every 10 years. Some of the traditional institutions have been very slow to embrace learning outcomes. If you are a newly accredited institution you must really embrace them.
When we had our first visit in 2003 that was one of our weaknesses; we were told we had to be fully committed to, and embrace, learning outcomes. As a result, when I became CEO I said that we were going to be so committed to this that we would post out learning outcomes on the Internet.
SM: How are learning outcomes defined?
WB: Every institution is allowed some flexibility in how learning outcomes are measured. For example, we needed a system. When I started in 2002 the only learning outcomes we had whether people got passing grades in courses and if they met the requirements for graduation. That is really not enough. What you have to look at, as an institution, is how many students do you get to achieve their success goals, and when they graduate how do they compare to other graduates. We put in specific learning outcomes in every one of our 1,500-course syllabus documents. We put in rubrics and standardized all rubrics and learning outcomes so that they were institutionalized.
SM: It seems that ‘learning outcome’ is a vague concept. Is finding a job a learning outcome? Is getting admitted to a higher degree a learning outcome?
WB: Not exactly. Our learning outcomes are values that promote lifelong learning. We believe in information literacy. We believe in learning how to be effective communicators. We believe in academic skill and prowess. We believe in critical thinking.