We're Not Accredited and We're Proud of It

What separates a "real" college from a fly-by-night diploma mill? One of the ways in which colleges and universities are vetted is by accreditation. But accreditation comes inflavors.
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What separates a "real" college from a fly-by-night diploma mill? One of the ways in which colleges and universities are vetted is by accreditation ... and many new for-profit online start-ups like the one in the Twitter ad blast flaunt their accreditation as a validation of their legitimacy. But accreditation comes in many flavors.

Like all respectable colleges and universities, my institution, Ithaca College, is accredited by the US Dept of Education approved agency for our region, Middle States. The Park School of Communications, where I'm the Dean, falls within that overall institutional accreditation and in fact, we're recognized as one of the top undergraduate communications schools in the nation. However, we are NOT accredited by the group that accredits many communications schools. And we're going to keep it that way. Allow me to explain -- because this is an important issue when prospective students and their families are considering college options.

Most non-profit or state universities and colleges in the US are accredited by a regional agency recognized by the US Department of Education. If an institution is not accredited, it can lose its eligibility for funding for financial aid and its credits may not be transferable to another college. These regional accrediting agencies base their decisions on an institution's comprehensive self-study and on actual visits to ensure that they offer a solid curriculum with appropriately qualified faculty, that there are appropriate academic policies in place, and that the institution is financially solid and well-managed. It's very important that any college you look at is accredited by one of these agencies -- and colleges will prominently list this on their websites and catalogs.

To check to see if a college you're interested in is accredited, you can visit the US Department of Education's database.

Other vocational and for-profit institutions may be accredited by a national agency that covers a specific area. Some of these include the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation, and the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education.

That's the easy part. Here's where it gets hairy: Many individual schools or degree programs within an institution can also be accredited by an agency that's specific to that discipline. For some, it's mandatory. For instance, programs offering a degree in teacher education or in certain health sciences such as physical therapy MUST be accredited for students to be able to sit for licensing exams and for students to be considered for graduate study in that area.

In other disciplines, there is voluntary accreditation. Business is one of those fields. Journalism is another -- and that's one of the degrees in my school. Some journalism programs choose to apply for accreditation from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. We've never chosen to pursue this and here's why.

The accreditation standards for ACEJMC actually limit the number of communications courses that students can take.They require that students take a minimum of 80 credits outside of the school while we require that students take at least 60 credits of their coursework outside of communications. But communications is a complex and rapidly changing field; to be competitive, students need a preparation that is both deep and broad. If you want to go into journalism, one course in reporting is not going to cut it. If you want to be a scriptwriter, you need many semesters of practice. Prospective communications professionals also need to learn about skills and practices related to their specific area of interest. Journalism students profit from being photography minors and taking courses in public relations. Cinema majors are well-advised to take some advertising courses lest they don't get picked up by George Lucas to direct his next epic.

ACEJMC also limits the amount of internship credit a student may take in a degree to the equivalent of one course -- 3 credits. That's counter-intuitive. What we're hearing is that to be employable, students need intensive and multiple internships. Our students often start out with a 1 credit internship after their freshman year, go to our Los Angeles, London or New York City programs and take 6 credits of internship (basically engaging in full-time work for a semester), and many of them do multiple internships in their home towns during the summer. We limit internships to 12 credits total.

Students come to the Park School and alumni are successful in large measure because we immediately immerse them in coursework in their majors starting day one -- AND we promote intensive and meaningful internships. Does this make our students less academically prepared or narrow? I certainly don't think so. Actually, we find that when students engage in internships and become immediately involved in their professional coursework, they are more likely to value the kinds of courses our college offers outside of their majors. They learn the value of speaking a second language, of being able to grasp scientific and economic concepts, and of being able to construct and balance a budget.

Many other schools of communication agree with our stance; in fact, only about a quarter of the over 400 programs seek accreditation -- and some prestigious programs such as Ohio State have voluntarily given up their accreditation so that they could offer what they feel is a more valuable curriculum.

Program accreditation and rankings are also often based on the publication and grant record of a faculty. This makes sense for institutions that are focused on graduate study and primary research. It doesn't make much sense for primarily undergraduate institutions. Ithaca College's School of Business achieved accreditation by the most prestigious agencies, AACSB -- but at the cost of reducing the teaching load of professors from 21 credits a year to 18 credits a year so that they could keep up with the stringent requirements of publishing required by the accreditation. That means that these great faculty teach less- and that overall the business school education is more expensive.

So accreditation is a two-edged sword. In today's confusing marketplace, families certainly need some assurance of the quality of an institution and its programs. On the other hand, accrediting agencies are one of the many factors that lead to curricular stagnation -- the very last thing that we need in higher education.

Who should decide which programs and colleges are "for real"? And on what basis? I'd love to hear your thoughts....

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