Campus strategies for a win in accreditation

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This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). It previously was published in NCMPR’s Counsel magazine and is reprinted with permission.

Accreditation is often a daunting process, but, by building strategies across campus, it can become a rewarding experience that unifies departments. Working together and planning early can break down silos and make the experience enjoyable for everyone – including your reviewers.

To borrow a sports analogy, a good defensive strategy won’t let anyone score against your team, and an offensive strategy makes sure you score all the points possible. Translated to marketing speak, that puts academics, student affairs and operations on defense, collecting data and preparing the assurance argument. On the offense, marketing, public relations and student leaders can help prepare winning strategies that everyone will appreciate.

The communication department at Arkansas State University-Mountain Home recently developed a game plan for accreditation using seven strategies that worked well to ensure a successful outcome.

Start early and build a good team. Make a timeline that outlines your college’s plan as early as three academic years out. If you’re too late for that, jump in and use any opportunity you have to catch up. Invite a representative from the accrediting agency to your campus for support and direction. These representatives are there to help you succeed.

Begin with the evidence, not the argument. Be honest when preparing the assurance argument by looking at your campus with healthy, critical eyes. Recognize the gaps in your argument, and try to fill those gaps or have a plan to fill them. In addition, make sure you’re doing things for the right reason, not just to please the accrediting body. Pull reports and link those to the assurance argument to show success and ways you’re trying to improve.

Include a good communication plan. Remember that guests are coming to your campus, and everyone across campus should be aware of it. The communication plan should explain the accreditation process, introduce the steering committee members and help alleviate fears. If your college will be evaluated on five criteria, send information out weekly about each one and follow up with a quiz the next week for a chance to win a prize. Two weeks out, you could construct a daily “Did you know?” email campaign with general information about the campus and the accrediting body.

Schedule a mock visit with colleagues from your state before the actual site visit. This gives you a chance to identify any knowledge gaps in your steering committee members or the campus at large. Does everyone know your mission statement? Can everyone articulate your vision and goals? Having friends ask the hard questions during the first go-around is often a relief to members of the steering committee and helps create a common voice among faculty, staff and students. Oftentimes, participants are nervous about saying the wrong thing or not knowing the answer to a question. Remind everyone that peer review isn’t a punitive function – it’s in place to help your college continually improve. Everyone should be comfortable with that.

Create a list of frequently asked questions. This list can help spread an understanding of the accreditation process and why it’s important. Why does your campus have to be accredited? What criteria will be used to evaluate the campus? Who is in charge of accreditation? What is an assurance argument? How will the results be reported? What kind of recommendation might the team make? These are all valid questions, and having a plan to share this information will put you in an offensive mode.

Involve stakeholders. If you can involve the community in your planning, why not? Having the board or advisory councils involved in the planning helps members become comfortable with the process and lets them shine when they meet with the visiting team.

Show off your best work. Reviewers love to hear evidence to support your argument, and a brag sheet of accomplishments makes it easy for faculty, staff and students to remember the things they are proudest of. This sheet is also a good way to remind folks of your mission statement, budgeting process and long-range goals.

These strategies let your campus celebrate and share the rewards of your hard work, both campuswide and throughout the community. Marketing professionals are the best at communicating and celebrating, so take advantage of the department’s strengths to augment the data and evidence associated with a win in accreditation.

About the Author

Christy Case Keirn
is associate vice chancellor for marketing and community relations at Arkansas State University-Mountain Home, where she has worked since 2007. She is a longtime member of NCMPR and previously served on the national board of directors as District 4 director.