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Case Study of Accreditation Reaffirmation with Undergraduate Academic Program Uncertainties

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Published: 19th Apr 2021

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Case Study of Accreditation Reaffirmation with Undergraduate Academic Program Uncertainties


The purpose of this study is to gain a general focused understanding of the accountability process at a research university in the Southern United States. Specifically, the study seeks to answer the following question: How is a research university in the Southern United States demonstrating the value and worthiness of their undergraduate programs and the overall successfulness of its student graduates. The study will be utilizing a qualitative research methodology, specifically a case study design. A total of 10 interviews will be conducted with participants representing the program, departmental and administrative levels. The College of Public Health and Service will provide the three unique programs for this study. An analysis of the information collected at the departmental and administrative levels will be collected to provide the information necessary to construct a detailed description of the accountability methods a selected university in Texas goes through to continue its accreditation status. In addition to the interviews with faculty members and administrators, additional information will be obtained from publicly available resources.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Most of the institutions in higher education are subjected to external pressures to provide evidence of the value and quality of what they offer. The external pressures from come from their stakeholders in the federal and state governments, accrediting bodies, private and corporate donors, prospective students and their parents, and others” (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). However, each of these entities may harbor a different outlook on the institutions authenticity, because according to DiMaggio and Powell, the “concept are not universally defined, and the goals of higher education are not always held in common” (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983).

In the last decade federal, state, and local government agencies have established additional rules, regulations and guidelines for institutions to comply with to gain more over sight into accountability at colleges and universities. To bring about the concept of accountability accrediting agencies were established to come up with and implement unique standards for quality and to monitor adherences to those standards.

Certifying bodies require U.S. colleges and universities to conform to the standards and Federal and state arrangements, directions, and prerequisites as well as requiring their membership to provide proof of continual improvement plans; and policies and procedures evidencing their ability to conduct fiscally responsible operations. The Southern Associations of Colleges and Schools’ Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement incorporates an area explicit to government prerequisites, which expresses “the bureaucratic resolution incorporates commands that the Commission audit an establishment as per criteria delineated in the administrative directions created by the U.S. Branch of Education.  As a component of the audit procedure, establishments are required to report consistence with those criteria and the Commission is committed to consider such consistence when the establishment is audited for beginning participation or proceeded accreditation”. (SACSCOC, 2018)

Across the U.S. there are various sorts of certifying bodies every which are autonomous from each other and the administration, whose primary obligations extend from national accreditation, provincial accreditation, and religious accreditation to program-explicit accreditations. In Texas, the Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), requires each of its public institutions within the university system to provide data on institutional finances, its employees, educational programs, and student financial aid as well as other types of necessary information, through the state’s Integrated Postsecondary Education System or (IPEDS).

In the 1980s, government agencies brought about increased demands on the education system to operate more transparently and provide more additional evidence of their value to its students. In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act came into law which not only impacted grades K-12 at the secondary level but those of higher education as well to increase student achievement, improve performance scores of state exams; provide more beneficial educational opportunities for low income/disadvantage students, and to hold all institutions accountable for student success (“No Child Left Behind – ED.gov”, 2018)

Next the creation of the Higher Education Act (HEA), the federal government which added even more requirements for accountability and even more regulations for post-secondary institutions. According to these changes, the demands on colleges and universities are anticipated to grow in the areas of “cost, value, and quality based on the public perception of the value of higher education which has continued to decrease as the cost of tuition has continued to rise” (Fischer, 2011).

So many stakeholders in higher education are beginning to ask how they can institutions continue to operate under the ever growing demands for data, accountability and complete transparency in undergraduate education?

Purpose Statement

The general purpose of this case study is to gain an understanding of the accreditation accountability processes at university in the State of Texas in regards to its undergraduate education programs. The overarching research question for this study is: How is a public, research university in the State of Texas substantiating the quality of its undergraduate educational programs and the success of graduates?

Significance of the Research

The significance of this study is to provide an in-depth look at the processes and challenges faced by a regional university as it continues to meet the competing demands imposed by the complex environment in which it operates. Specifically, using DiMaggio & Powell’sinstitutional theory model which states that “colleges and universities operate within an organizational field where a variety of external constituencies suggest how institutions should operate, defining them as institutional organizations” (Powell & DiMaggio, 1998).  For example, government agencies, accreditation bodies, and disciplinary associations all attempt to manage the activities of colleges and universities. When institutions operate within the guidelines and accepted notions, external constituents view the college as a legitimate actor within the higher education field. The environment then rewards legitimacy with additional support in terms of funding, quality faculty, and interested students. As a result, the broader environment with normative expectations provides both positive and negative reinforcement that shapes institutional behavior institutions are viewed as consisting of “cultured cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life” (Powell & DiMaggio, 1998).  The study addressed how the institution responds to the requirements for legitimacy from each of these perspectives.

In addition to DiMaggio & Powell’s institutional theory model, I viewed the organization from the perspective of Easton’s (1965) political systems model, which helped explain how a set of inputs represented the external pressures and how the institution interpreted those inputs and, based on feedback, responded in the form of outputs in order to survive.

Definitions of Terms

The following is a list of terms that will be used throughout this study.

Accountability: “the quality or state of being accountable; especially: an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions” (Eaton, 2012).

Accreditation: “a process of external quality review created and used by higher education to scrutinize colleges, universities, and programs for quality assurance and quality improvement” (Eaton, 2012)

Accrediting agency: “a legal entity, or that part of a legal entity, that conducts accrediting activities through voluntary, non-Federal peer review and makes decisions concerning the accreditation or preaccreditation in the status of institutions, programs, or both” (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).

Legitimacy: “a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions” (Suchman, 1995).

Program: “a postsecondary educational program offered by an institution of higher education that leads to an academic or professional degree, certificate, or other recognized educational credential” (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).

Programmatic accrediting agency: “also called Specialized Accrediting Agencies. They focus on discipline-specific educational program and are geographically non-restricted” (SACSCOC, 2018).

Reaffirmation: “the date an institution’s last reaffirmation identifies the year that the most recent comprehensive review of the institution’s compliance with the Commission’s requirements and standards was acted upon by the SACSCOC Board of Trustees” (SACSCOC, 2018).

Regional Accrediting Agencies: “the seven regional accrediting agencies within the six geographic regions of the U.S. review the entire organization, not just the education programs, for institutions within their geographic service area” (SACSCOC, 2018).

SACS Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC): “one of two separately incorporated entities of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the SACSCOC Commission on college is the regional body for the accreditation of degree-granting institutions of higher education in the eleven Southern states – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia” (SACSCOC, 2018)

Standards for accreditation: “statements that articulate the quality and effectiveness expected of accredited institutions, and collectively they provide a framework for continuous improvement within institutions” (SACSCOC, 2012, p. 26).


Limitations of the Study

Only 18 individuals will be invited to participate in the study, four representing the University, six from the department, and six from at the program level. The objective is to have at least four participants from each of the three tiers – university, departmental and program levels to ensure the creditability and validity of the study.  

The timeframe of the study (only 16 weeks) is another limitation of the study that possibly can affect the ability to secure all desired participants. This could be a factor based on workloads and ability of participants to fit a one hour interview into their schedules.

  Lastly, there is my personal perception since I have been in higher education for over 18 plus years in numerous positions throughout campuses.

Conceptual Framework

For this study I will be using two corresponding theories: Easton’s political systems model and DiMaggio & Powell’s institutional theory. Easton’s political systems model highlights the external pressures colleges and universities face in today’s world and how these entities need to manage these pressures in order to continue to operate. This framework views the “organization as an open and adaptive system” (Easton, 1965). DiMaggio & Powell’s institutional theory helps to simplify the external expectations by looking at the institution as a whole looking at how the external pressures placed on them transform into sound internal practices. However, each of these structures views the organization’s validity differently, which helps further explain the challenges higher education institutions face.

Easton’s Political System Model

Easton’s political framework model (1965) depends on four general ideas: framework,

condition, reaction, and input. The last two, reaction and input, set Easton’s model

aside from other framework models. His model depends on a progression of contributions from nature what’s more, yields dependent on how the framework procedures and reacts to the information sources. Framework alludes to a arrangement of practices rather than a solitary substance, which is unique in relation to the earth in which the framework exists. All the more explicitly, it is an open framework that must adapt to condition created requests. This condition impacts the framework and can add worry to the framework that interior pressure can compound. The capacity of a framework to endure the burdens (inputs) made by the requests and the help of nature depend on the framework’s capacity to react to them as yields: “industriousness of a framework, its ability to proceed with the creation of legitimate yields, will depend, subsequently, after keeping a change procedure working” (Easton, 1965).

Under Easton’s political framework, one must assess a framework by examining the following factors: “(a) nature of data sources, (b) conditions under which the factors will make worry in the framework, (c) the state of the condition that makes the pressure, (d) how others frameworks have adapted to pressure, (e) data criticism, and (f) the job yields play in the adapting and transformation process” (Easton, 1965).  From the information given in this above, it ought to be obvious that the issue of responsibility in advanced education is mind boggling, based on the differences that various stakeholders express when it comes to the alternate points of view and desires, but all have a part in influencing this framework. For example, the accreditation procedure, which is viewed as a self-administrative and intentional process, is really not deliberate in light of bureaucratic, state, and neighborhood government desires and the progressions that are yet to come (Eaton, 2012). Schools and colleges are feeling the squeeze to exhibit the “quality” of their administrations, utilizing various intermediaries that may not really speak to quality. The pressures originates from all facets of the government, state, provincial, and national certifying bodies; students as well as researchers and others that feel they have a vested interest in education. To continue their accreditation status, institutions are required to meet each stakeholder’s desires by supplying the required information as proof which keeps on expanding, as the requests for further documentation and proof develop.

Chapter 2: Background to the Study and Conceptual Framework

Accreditation and Higher Education in the United States

To better understand the reasoning behind the push in increased accountability in higher education, one needs to start by looking at the different opinions that have attempted to define the roles of higher education over the last decade.

In his 2006 article,  “Mutual subversion: A short history of the liberal and the professional in American higher education” D.F. Labaree wrote that “there is a fascinating double dynamic that runs through the history of American higher education, pushing the system simultaneously to become more professional and more liberal. The tension among perspectives builds, as some stakeholders believe higher education exists to prepare students for jobs, while others adhere to the more traditional notion that higher education’s purpose is to provide knowledge with no necessarily implicit application. The current trend is the focus on professional rather than liberal education” (Labaree, 2006).

Thinking about the different stakeholders and their various viewpoints, institutions are continuously faced with new challenges of instituting new accountability measures that will satisfy the demands of everyone.

Derek Bok, wrote in his book OurUnderachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, that anyone trying define to identify a single purpose for higher education or a common purpose for colleges and universities should look prior to pre-Civil War times. He claimed that “the classical curriculum focused on mental discipline and character building and that at present colleges should pursue a variety of purposes, including a carefully circumscribed effort to foster generally accepted values and behaviors, such as honesty and racial tolerance” (Bok, 2006). 

Later on authors Hacker and Dreifus challenged Bok’s (2006) view in their book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It, stating “that the main objective of higher education was to educate and that college needs to be a cultural journey, an intellectual expedition, a voyage of confronting new ideas and

information, then together, expanding and deepening our understanding of ourselves and the world” (Hacker & Dreifus, 2010).

Attempting to streamline, or even recognize, the objectives of U.S. advanced education is an overwhelming errand since these objectives can be seen both from the individual point of view and summed up to societal and monetary advantages. Diverse sorts of advanced education foundations, for example,  junior colleges, conventional schools, colleges with a solid human sciences establishment,  examine colleges, and nontraditional vocation universities all have remarkable purposes, yet all higher  training establishments give people the chance to increase vital information and abilities to add to society.

While talking about advanced education’s objectives, what students are picking up from their encounters must be analyzed. In their audit of 30 years of experimental research about how schools influence students, Pascarella and Terenzini reasoned “that in spite of the fact that there is blended proof in regards to school’s impacts on alumni’s sociopolitical mentalities, advanced education has beneficial outcome on students’ metro and network association, notwithstanding students’ racial, ethnic, and multicultural demeanors and qualities, which are helped through their grown-up years (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). While higher education’s goals may or may not be clear, higher education shapes the way students view the world and therefore affects their actions and involvement as adults.

Therefore, the perception remains that colleges and universities need to operate efficiently in difficult financial times while also remaining accountable to all its stakeholders. Therefore ultimately connected to the core values of higher education overall.

Federal Government

The federal government’s involvement in the process of accountability has become more apparent in the last few years, due to the increasing demands for accountability of institutions based on their receiving federal funding for students. Consequently, numerous initiatives have been implemented that have impacted higher education funding and accountability.

 President Truman instituted the Commission on Higher Education in 1947 to change post- secondary education from a first class only framework to a framework serving the majority (Boyer, 1990). The Commission issued a report calling for advanced education to become the vehicle by which everyone is urged to seek training that is competent and beneficial. Because of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, otherwise called the GI Bill, advanced education experienced a huge boost in enrollment numbers at institutions across the country so servicemen and women could either come back to the colleges or universities they were attended prior to war or for those that had never attended to go to school.

Because of the fast development, the nature of the training that these organizations offered was believed flawed and that the GI Bill was only assessable through schools that were certified through government perceived associations (Wellman, 1998).

Even with all of these initiatives, measures of responsibility and safeguards, concerns over the level of quality in education have continued to plague our institutions. Educational scholars Cohen and Kiske, wrote that because “federal and state tuition subsidies and state support of publicly funded institutions now approximate half of all operating revenues, governmental demands for accountability have grown ever more persistent” (Cohen & Kiske 2010).

Therefore here in the U.S. there is not just one governmental agency that has overall authority for overseeing and monitoring of our all of our colleges and universities. States and local governments now have control of their own individual institutions; the authority to grant institutions the license to award degrees and each is self-governed or has a group of elected or appointed governing board members to oversee the organization’s operations.

State Governments

State governments are the second factor in charge of ensuring value and affirmation in advanced education. States have a particular interest in the nature of training being given, as the workforce will directly affect the state’s overall economy. Nonetheless, restricted assets are accessible to subsidize advanced education, a circumstance that frequently puts a strain between state governments and their advanced education establishments. Institutional projects at state-financed institutions are bolstered by state and nearby assets, and also educational cost. With the current monetary shortfalls operating under extreme tight budgetary limitations, states are looking for approaches to accomplish everything that they need to more effectively.

Chapter 3: Research Methodology

To help formulate an answer to the research question, a descriptive embedded case study design will be used.  First, the study will focus on “how” the institution responded to the increasing demands of the federal, state and accrediting agencies in terms of accountability and, in the end, legitimacy of their educational program. Secondly, the study will focus on the overall issue of accountability at a public institution in higher education.

According to Scholz & Tietje, an embedded case study “involves more than one unit, or object, of analysis” and “usually is not limited to qualitative analysis alone. The multiplicityof evidence is investigated at least partly in subunits, which focus on different salient aspects of the case” (Scholz & Tietie, 2002). In this study the main unit will be the selected institution as a whole, and the smallest units will be the chosen departments and programs.

The department selected for the study will be the Department of Health and Pubic Service and its programs leading to the Bachelor of Science in Applied Behavioral Science, the Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitative Services and Bachelor in Social Work. Each of these programs selected are educational programs offered at the institution, each has a different levels of accreditation/accountability responsibilities and lastly each represents the three tiers structure of a university – the university, college, and program.

No more than 15 specific interview questions will be created based on the study’s theoretical framework,  to gain a detailed perspective of how faculty and administrators at the institution speak to the institution’s legitimacy, based on the demands being placed on them through the expectations of federal, state, and accrediting agencies.

After receiving approval from the University of North Texas (UNT) Institutional Review Board (IRB), an email will be created and approval obtained from Dr. Chen prior to it being sent with an Informed consent form (attached) to the potential participants. Participants will be asked to review and sign the informed consent form prior to participating in the interviews.

Personal one-on-one interviews will be conducted, digitally recorded and transcribed. Transcripts will then be crosschecked against the interviews recording to ensure accuracy and coded at multiple levels, beginning with a set of a priori codes and then transitioning to in vivo coding.  After the interview transcripts are coded, I looked for patterns to identify themes that provide in-depth descriptions of participants’ perceptions of the accountability process and interpreted the findings, which will be rechecked and verified by my major professor, Dr. Chen and members of my research team.

Research Question

The overarching research question was as follows: How is a regional comprehensive university in the Southeast United States substantiating the quality of undergraduate professional programs and the success of graduates?

Credibility and Trustworthiness

In order to present a credible and trustworthy study, I used a number of credibility techniques including member checks, informal peer debriefing, triangulation, and thick rich description. First, to carry out the inquiry in such a way that the probability that the findings will be found to be credible is enhanced, and second, to demonstrate the credibility of the findings by having them approved by the participants study.

Member checks will occur after the transcription of the interview process and corrections or edits participants deemed necessary.

I will use data triangulation to confirm my findings while also looking at published information available through reliable and credible sources online websites to supplement and/or corroborate what participants stated. In addition, after the interviews, I asked participants to corroborate any information I added from the online sources and to provide additional resources if needed.

Generalizability and Transferability

For the purpose of this study, generalizability was viewed from the perspective of the schema theory, meaning that the role of the research is not to identify a correct interpretation of the accountability process at the institution.  According to authors Scholz & Tietie, “case studies allow for vicarious experiences, permitting researchers to draw experiential understanding from those involved in the study. This understanding is crucial for the success of this type of study because the goal is to expand the cognitive structures of the reader, in order to transfer to other scenarios” (Scholz & Tietje, 2002). The case study will provide the information needed for readers to go through these stages, allowing them to apply the case study findings to their own situations. For individuals with prior knowledge of the process, the value will come from the transferability of the perspective provided based on the theoretical framework used for this study.



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