Assuring quality and integrity in education has long been both a public and an institutional goal. Regional accreditation, a means of self-regulation adopted by the higher education community, has evolved to support this goal. In 1919, institutions of higher education in the Middle States region joined to form an association of colleges and secondary schools. Subsequently, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education was established to oversee educational quality and improvement through the accrediting process based on peer review. Accreditation, therefore, is intended to strengthen and sustain higher education, making it worthy of public confidence and minimizing the scope of external control.
Colleges and universities become members of the Middle States Association upon accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Membership in the Association includes a commitment to continuous self-assessment. The extent to which each educational institution accepts and fulfills this responsibility is a measure of its concern for freedom and quality in higher education and its commitment to striving for and achieving excellence in its endeavors.
The Commission requires every candidate seeking initial accreditation and every member institution preparing for reaccreditation to undertake an intensive self-study, followed by peer review. This process occurs approximately five years after an institution is initially accredited and every ten years thereafter. Rensselaer is coming up for its ten-year reaccreditation in 2016.
During self-study, the institution carefully considers its educational programs and services, with particular attention to student learning and achievement, and it determines how well these programs and services accomplish the institution's goals, fulfill its mission, and meet the Commission's standards. Under the leadership of a steering committee appointed by the institution, working groups examine existing data and evaluative reports, frequently gather new information, and prepare draft evaluative reports on their assigned topics. The steering committee edits the reports of the various working groups, produces a draft for discussion, and disseminates the final self-study report.
A cross-section of the campus community is expected to participate in the self-study process at each stage: in the steering committee, the working groups, and the campus-wide discussions.
The self-study that each college or university conducts is the most important and valuable aspect of the accrediting process, and the benefits it brings to an institution are proportional to the inclusiveness of its inquiry. The self-study process enables the campus community to examine the institution's strengths and challenges relative to accreditation standards. The process also enables each institution to develop solutions to problems, and to identify opportunities for growth and development. The aim is to understand, evaluate and improve, not simply to describe or defend.
The primary benefit of self-study should be continuous growth and developmeht of the institution. Therefore, self-study will be most helpful if the institution adapts and implements it as a continuous process that supports the institution's regular planning cycle. Because self-study is a major element in the life of an institution, it should be a useful activity, planned and executed carefully, and not simply a formal exercise.
The self-study also serves the institution's responsibility of accountability to various constituencies. Both the self-study and the evaluation team report are shared by the institution with its community. The accreditation decision by the Middle States Commission in Higher Education that follows the self-study and team visit is available to the public as part of the 'Statement of Accreditation Status' issued by the Commission for each of its members.
Important stages in the self- study process include:
- Selecting the type of self-study model that will be most useful to the institution in supporting and promoting its particular goals and priorities
- Organizing committees and campus-wide participation for effective involvement of the entire institutional community
- Using the process for self-analysis and planning
- Writing a report summarizing the institution's conclusions and recommendations
- Hosting an evaluation team of peers who review the institution's self-study in the context of the institution's mission
- Responding to the report of the evaluation team
- Receiving the Commission's decision regarding initial or continued accreditation status