Streamline Accreditation for Your Community College With Effective Goal-Tracking

Lena Eisenstein
6 min read

When a community college gets national accreditation, its students become eligible for federal financial aid, their credits become transferable, and they gain credibility in the eyes of future employers and graduate schools. The institution benefits both from the federal aid and from the larger pool of applicants.

The accreditation process, though, can be taxing, to say the least. Accredited community colleges have found that one simple step makes the process less stressful and also more likely to succeed: keeping comprehensive, foolproof records pegged to stated goals all year long. The right software puts this ambitious goal within easy reach.

How Do Community Colleges Get Accredited?

Gaining official accreditation is far more substantial than simply getting positive reviews on Yelp. The Department of Education confers national accreditation on any community college that gets the stamp of approval from an approved regional accrediting body, of which the U.S. has 13. Let the buyer beware: Some community colleges claim they are accredited when they have not gone through these legally required channels. To earn recognition from its regional agency, the community college undergoes an extensive process of disclosure that conveys to accreditors the rigor and stability of their institution.

The accrediting agency makes planned visits to campus. The liaison on campus arranges groups and topics for these visits. There may be a meeting of faculty and librarians to discuss how the faculty integrates library services into the classroom. Another meeting could bring together the Dean of Student Affairs with campus counselors and student clients to describe how the campus responds to student emergencies.

Before these meetings, the accreditor collects data on the school. That spadework is more strenuous and less glamorous than the more photogenic campus visits. For instance, before meeting with the Student Affairs group, the accrediting staff will want to see the record of public safety incidents, mental health services offered, and outcomes in terms of crime rates, dropout figures and suicide statistics.

For the community college, the result is comparable to an audit. Extensive records are essentially requisitioned; the school must pull together the needed information. Say, the accreditor needs to see whether the faculty spent at least 30% of their time closely grading individual student papers. Or they want to know whether the Board of Trustees has devoted at least 20% of its meeting time to considering concrete steps to improve student well-being. Imagine being the administrator receiving the requests. Where would you begin to find the answers?

Software makes all the difference

Facing requests for extensive data, the unprepared community college will discover that hell has a basement, to which they are banished for weeks, if not months. Let's call that school's administration the "Winging It Wombats." Simple software makes it possible for another community college, whose administration plays under the flag of "Calm, Cool, Confident Cougars" to take a walk in the park, completing the report in an afternoon, with plenty of time left for sherry at the faculty club. The difference is momentous.

For the Wombats, stressful, slipshod "methods" generate wildly inaccurate measures while bringing untold stress. Imagine their predicament: They might survey faculty with the question: "How much of your time over the last four semesters has been devoted to closely grading individual student papers?" No professor can figure that out. Imagine reconstructing from 18 months ago how much time in a given week you devoted to preparing lectures, curating materials, doing committee work, counseling students and grading papers. Even the most meticulous calendar is not broken down according to those categories.

Adding to the faculty inaccuracy is the difficulty of measuring "close grading." Does it require correcting grammar? Noting whether the paper strays conceptually from its thesis? Most faculty in higher education slap a grade at the top. They might add: "Work on structure." That's it. Feeling pressured to produce, that professor will call it "close grading," no matter what feedback they provided the student. Furthermore, since it has been requisitioned by the boss, there's an incentive to inflate the number, to a degree that cannot be known, since nobody has any idea what the actual time allotment was in the first place.

After repeatedly badgering respondents, the campus liaison tallies these retrospective estimates to deliver a number. She presumably averages the responses to create a campus-wide figure. The simplicity of calculating an average belies the outrageously faulty numbers that are used. How good is that final number? What stress did numerous campus players endure to produce this wild guess?

Meanwhile, the Cougars generate a fully accurate figure, which they derive with a single keystroke. The difference is the goal-tracking capacity of their software. Imagine that all of the activities of the entire faculty, staff and board were entered every day into a database, which sorted them according to which objective they serve — and even how much of the annual campus-wide time commitment to that goal is thereby satisfied. The database instantly adds it to a running tally of time spent on that goal by everyone on campus, creating a composite number. After a year, a simple data query creates a report of the resources devoted to reaching each goal. (Bonus: Midyear, the same report can show year-to-date totals, highlighting areas that need more attention in the remaining months.)

Armed with software featuring this goal-tracking capacity, the Cougars had set themselves up for success long before the accreditation process began. At the beginning of the year, they had entered category headers that coincided with the accreditation criteria. Their internal strategic plan could even be pegged to those categories.

Hartnell College in Salinas, CA, created sound documents almost effortlessly by having the computer track the goals of the accrediting agency. When a school's own strategic plan does not overlap 100% with the accreditation criteria, there's no harm done if the school supplements the accreditation criteria with other priorities that exceed those requirements.

Such laser-like goal tracking is exactly what BoardDocs software makes possible. Auditors in California have even implored client communities to adopt the software, precisely because of its goal-tracking capacity. As each constituent goes about his day, his record of activities feeds an accruing count of the whole college and provides precise figures for an end-of-year tally. A little training shows each employee (and board member) how to enter the data, and then the miracle of goal-tracking goes to work.

Software with goal-tracking capabilities makes it a breeze for community colleges to generate the data that accreditors require. Your faculty, board and staff will thank you. So will the visiting official who needs reliable numbers before he can consider your application for accreditation. Even your money managers will thank you: As important as accreditation is for community college enrollments and revenues, the investment in such software gets an impressive return indeed.