Even pre-COVID, many state systems were watching declining enrollments at their colleges and/or universities, which was coupled with rising or, at least, not declining costs. This combination gave rise to several system offices needing to make some tough decisions. Those decisions were usually based on systematic analyses that included factors such as:
The system office staff and board members usually examined these factors very carefully before reaching any firm conclusions.
For some state systems (e.g., Vermont State Colleges, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, Minnesota State), decisions were made to consolidate some or all of the independently accredited campuses. The process of fulfilling that decision is very complex. One aspect of that process is working through the requirements of institutional accreditation. The accrediting commissions all require evidence that the new organizational structure will still meet all the requirements embedded in their standards.
In the examples above, three different formally-known-as regional accrediting commissions were involved. Each case is somewhat unique in part because evaluating institutional consolidations is not a typical practice for accreditors; however, the New England Commission for Higher Education is getting the most practice these days.
In 2020, NCHEMS worked with the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) to develop conversations between state system leaders and both professional and institutional accreditors. Through this process, we developed A Framework for Action. It is a tool for public higher education systems and accrediting organizations to work together, both on a routine basis and when significant changes are contemplated by either party.
During the process of interviewing and hosting the discussions that resulted in the Framework, it became obvious that the accrediting community had been focusing on their usual members, independent institutions. Most leaders in the accrediting community had little knowledge of the scope of the variety in state systems. It was also clear that state system board members and institutional staff had little knowledge of how their own systems had emerged.
To help with that lack of knowledge, NCHEMS’ Aims McGuiness created a paper, State Higher Education Structures and Institutional Accreditation. This review of university and community college systems across the country is the most comprehensive guide for the accrediting community as well as policymakers.
In addition to creating resources for accreditors and state systems to help these communities better understand one another, NCHEMS has also assisted several states as they begin the deliberation process to reach decisions that will assure the populations across their states have access to quality higher education programs they need. As we have reminded countless state legislators, once you start closing campuses that are not financially sustainable, you remove communities’ sustainability as well. Without the regional colleges and universities in a state, the local communities no longer have teachers, nurses, accountants, police officers, and many other professionals. Without these critical roles in the community, it fades.
While campuses may not be sustainable if they continue to operate in their old ways, they can flourish if they collaborate with other campuses and consolidate certain services, including academics. They can begin to operate very differently and still serve their students and regions with high-quality support, which brings us back to accreditation. Both the accrediting community and state system staff are beginning the process of accommodating one another’s needs. NCHEMS continues to work with both.
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