News From AU – Middle States Accreditation

Spearheading AU’s Middle States accreditation efforts are

Nancy Parker (liaison officer), Sandy Sales (committee recording secretary), and Ken Collier (committee chair).

Athabasca University is proceeding with its efforts to achieve full accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, an accomplishment that will help facilitate AU’s expansion into the US market. Ken Collier, chair of the steering committee, provides an update.

Why Accreditation?
Athabasca University recently achieved “candidate” status with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education on the path toward accreditation in the USA. A representative committee and 11 task forces are working toward that goal. AU staff work on organizing the needed documents and resources. “But why are we doing this?” some have asked.

In 1999, the Strategic University Plan update process committed AU to enter the US higher education market. Research and consultation led to the conclusion that US accreditation would be needed. American and visiting students to the USA are reluctant to enroll at unaccredited institutions. Credit transfer and general academic recognition hinge around accreditation.

Diploma mills and fly-by-night operators cloud the American education climate. Potential students are suspicious of universities with whom they are not familiar. Though the Canadian scene is less concerned with accreditation, an additional benefit of US accreditation will be that AU will also be better recognized in Canada and internationally, where concerns about diploma mills may be less prominent than in the US, but nevertheless a reality.

Accreditation goes a long way toward easing these fears. Dr. John Bear, who visited AU a few years ago (and whose best-selling Bear’s Guides to non-traditional degrees, degrees by mail and modem, etc. mention AU favourably) makes the case for accreditation at: http://www.degree.net/guides/accreditation_guide.html

Though there is no formal accrediting body in Canada, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC, publisher of University Affairs) is exploring a full accreditation role, though its realization is both uncertain and many years off. AU, as a full AUCC member, could bring both experience and DE distinctiveness to this function, should it occur.

Why Middle States?
The AU Executive group and the International Projects office explored US accreditors. Six American regional bodies do this work. They have similar, yet slightly varying, missions and criteria. Some have more experience with distance education and open learning than others. At the time of application, only two regional accreditation bodies accepted applications from institutions that were not incorporated in the US, and as AU wants to serve this market without creating a new infrastructure (as did the USOU) this reduced the alternatives significantly.

Middle States was chosen because it showed some understanding and active interest in Athabasca University’s approach – both to distance education and to the accreditation process.

The Accreditation Process
Much can be learned about a university’s own functioning through accreditation. This is not just an act of supplication to a distant – foreign – body. If that was all the accreditation bid amounted to, neither AU nor Middle States would be interested.

Rather, AU gets to see itself through somewhat dispassionate eyes. It also sees itself through its own utterances – how it states its own mission and goals, how it carries out its educational roles, how it explains itself to others, what practical deed it commits, and ultimately, what the implications of all those activities are.

The accreditation process invites stakeholders to show their relationship to AU. Students, tenured academics, tutors, subject matter experts, administrative and maintenance staff and interested observers get to measure AU against recognized criteria. Middle States gets more experience with a distance education university. Middle States already knows other institutions with considerable DE approaches. The Middle States web site directory (http://www.msache.org/direc.html) lists the variety of institutions they accredit.

They also have an interests in AU as a Canadian university to be accredited in the USA (they already have a few) and as a solely DE provider. AU’s unique features, while eminently accreditable, also provide input to their processes that will surely meet many more DE institutions in the future. AU gains membership in this accrediting body and can influence its policies and directions through active engagement with other US and global higher education organizations.

Next up: Going Global

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