For Defense Acquisition University, getting accredited was more than just a status symbol. It was a natural progression that drove the integration of continuous improvement and performance management.
Accreditation is very important to degree-granting colleges and universities. Prospective students want to know if they are enrolling in an accredited institution. They want to know if the degree they earn (and pay for) will be recognized and valued by employers, other academic institutions and society in general. But what about corporate learning organizations that do not grant degrees? Can they and should they become accredited?
To better consider that question, let’s look at two definitions of the term “accreditation” from relevant sources:
1. “Accreditation is a status granted to an institution that meets or exceeds the stated criteria of educational quality. The purposes of accreditation are to assess and enhance the educational quality of an institution, to assure consistency in institutional operations, to promote institutional improvement, and to provide for public accountability.” – Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET) standards handbook
2. “Accreditation is either institutional or programmatic in nature, and it is intended to assess and enhance the educational quality of either an entire institution or a specific program of study within an institution. Programmatic accreditation is an assessment of a particular program of study such as law, music, or library science offered at an institution. Institutional accreditation means the entire institution has been assessed, from the governance and financial stability to the programs of study and student services of that institution.” – Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
Within the higher education community, accrediting agencies, state regulatory agencies and the U.S. Department of Education all are involved in institutional oversight. Accrediting agencies are responsible for determining educational quality. State regulatory agencies are responsible for granting the legal authority for institutions to operate in their states and for consumer-protection matters.
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is responsible for determining the eligibility of institutions to participate in federal assistance programs and for enforcement of the regulations governing the administration of federal student assistance programs. In addition, the DOE, using congressionally mandated criteria, recognizes accrediting agencies to ensure these agencies are, for the purposes of the Higher Education Act, “reliable authorities regarding the quality of education or training offered by the institutions or programs they accredit,” according to the Council of Occupational Education (COE) standards handbook.
Benefits of accreditation for academic institutions may seem obvious, but is it really worth expending the time, resources and effort to accredit your learning organization?
To answer this question, learning leaders not only must understand their environments, but also must have a need to measure the learning organization against a set of external standards. Undergoing accreditation involves the entire organization, and accreditation must become the bedrock of a comprehensive continuing-improvement program.
For Defense Acquisition University (DAU) — which provides training for the Department of Defense’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) workforce — getting accredited was a natural progression integrating continuous improvement and performance management. Starting with course evaluations, continuing with benchmarking, growing with sector-leadership award programs and going beyond the adoption of best practices, DAU finally was ready for its corporate university programs and processes to be assessed. DAU leaders felt that this would create and maintain a robust learning environment and institutionalize the organization’s successes.
Undergoing an accreditation involves the entire team. Everyone must participate and be on board. The process involves evaluating the whole organization and all of its key processes. At first, DAU had to socialize the process and benefits to its faculty and staff, and later to its stakeholders. To accomplish this, the organization put a communications plan together, which helped DAU’s leadership think through its strategy for success.
DAU leaders considered five alternatives they felt would best fit their training mission and would be recognized by the DOE:
1. Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT): ACCSCT reviews private institutions of higher education and states its purpose as establishing and maintaining high educational standards and ethical business practices.
2. Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET): This organization —founded in 1974 to improve continuing education and training — is officially recognized by the DOE as a “reliable authority” on the quality of education and training.
3. Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS): This institution is primarily responsible for private, post-secondary institutions offering certificates or diplomas and post-secondary institutions offering associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees in programs designed to educate students for professional, technical or occupational careers. This includes those offering programs via distance education.
4. Council on Occupational Education (COE): Established in 1971, the council is a national agency for the accreditation of non-degree-granting and applied associate degree-granting, post-secondary occupational education institutions.
5. Distance Education Training Council (DETC): This organization is responsible for schools that only offered instruction by distance education.
DAU selected COE because it seemed to be the best fit for its training certification mission, its technical workforce and its broader view of learning and development. Recommendations from other similar organizations also played a role in this decision.
After a year’s work involving a formal self-assessment and a visit by the accreditation team, DAU was accredited in 2003. This accreditation and evaluation process required DAU to meet 11 categories of more than 200 standards, including institutional mission and objectives, educational programs, institutional outcomes, strategic planning, learning resources, physical resources, financial resources, human resources, organizational structure, student services and activities, and distance education.
As a result of its first accreditation review, DAU received the longest approved accreditation period that COE could issue. Accreditation indicates a corporate university meets all elements of COE’s requirements for operations, from mission to continuous improvement. The entire process is comparable to the process an academic college or university undergoes.
DAU recently went through its second accreditation review and again passed standards in all 11 areas, as well as being cited with three commendations.
General Benefits of Accreditation
What could accreditation mean in other learning environments? It could be an opportunity to improve the quality of a learning organization. It could help in evaluating and comparing courses and programs, facilities and procedures with those of others. The organization could receive public recognition as an institution that has met industry-wide standards.
However, the greatest value of accreditation is undergoing the process itself, a process of self-evaluation and peer review that ensures programs and policies embody “standards of good practice.”
There are many choices for accreditation. Learning leaders should consider what type of accreditation program is right for their corporate universities or learning and development organizations based on organizational priorities.
A typical accreditation process takes one and a half years of preparation and involves a self-evaluation, comparing programs to established standards and identifying areas of comparable strength and needed improvement. The results of the self-evaluation are verified on-site by a team of evaluators and subsequently by the accreditation authority. An organization must demonstrate it has met all standards before accreditation is conferred.
DAU’s self-study was accomplished as part of the institutional reaffirmation of the accreditation process set forth by COE. Compiling the self-study was a collaborative effort between DAU staff, faculty and leadership, giving the organization an opportunity to examine the critical processes supporting its vision of being a premier corporate university serving the AT&L community. Preparing the self-study also provided DAU with an excellent forum for identifying areas in which improvement could be made and prioritizing them in its strategic-planning process. Dr. Sue Stein, action officer for DAU’s COE accreditation, led the integrated process team that represented a cross section of the entire university.
In addition to and complementing the COE accreditation program, DAU uses other sources of standards, such as the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, American Council on Education and DAU’s market-sector professional association criteria or sector leadership program.
Leveraging market-sector professional association or sector leadership criteria, DAU has received many awards as a corporate university. These awards are standards-based and promote measuring DAU’s performance against nationally recognized measures of success. Today, DAU is recognized as one of America’s leading training institutions.
“As we improve our mission-support capability, we are moving toward becoming one of the best corporate universities recognized inside and outside DOD for excellence in education and as a leader in the creation, integration, dissemination and application of knowledge,” DAU President Frank Anderson said.
“We will continue to actively participate in initiatives to help streamline processes and incorporate new concepts and technology. DAU’s continuing involvement in the accreditation process will provide the sense of direction necessary for the superior attainment of our mission.”