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SACSCOC reaffirmation coming to MUSC in 2017

Cindy Abole | aboleca@musc.edu | December 16, 2016

Dr. Thomas leads a SACSCOC meeting.
Photo by J. Ryne Danielson
Dr. Suzanne Thomas, center, professor and university liaison officer for SACSCOC, meets with members of MUSC's reaffirmation team, Dr. Nancy Carson, from left, Dr. Jeff Borckardt, Dr. Mary Mauldin and Dr. Ben Reynolds. 

Students may not realize it, but obtaining their degrees from institutions that have passed an authorized accreditation process is important to their education. Academic integrity is something that students count on their institutions to achieve.

This voluntary evaluation process ensures that a school meets and maintains a particular level of educational quality for degree granting colleges and universities.

According to Suzanne Thomas, Ph.D., professor and director of MUSC’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness and the university’s liaison officer for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, with today’s challenges in higher education, SACSCOC and other accrediting agencies serve as “gatekeepers of accreditation” to schools, ensuring they demonstrate compliance to specific principles, standards and policies related to good educational practices and sound stewardship.

“The federal government is interested in ensuring that no schools are ‘selling a degree,’” said Thomas. “If students are paying to attend a school and going into debt, they want to ensure students are getting a good deal for their investment.”

The accreditation process is similar to how the Joint Commission reviews hospitals and the Center for Scientific Review assesses federally-funded research grant proposals. Just as accreditation by the Joint Commission is necessary for a hospital to be eligible to receive reimbursement from federal sources like Medicaid and Medicare, academic accreditation is necessary for a school to offer its students access to federal financial aid.

MUSC is accredited by SACSCOC, which is one of six regional accreditation authorities in the country that is authorized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education. Recognized as one of the country’s largest and most rigorous regional accreditors, SACSCOC accredits schools in the southeastern region of the U.S., including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

To be accredited through SACSCOC, institutions have to meet standards outlined in its “Principles of Accreditation” and demonstrate compliance with approximately 100 standards under one of three categories: core requirements, comprehensive standards and federal requirements.

“SACSCOC reaffirmation of accreditation is critical to our mission as an institution of higher education,” said Thomas, who is leading the school’s 2017 process.

Accreditation allows an institution to participate in Title IV federal funding for student financial aid (public and private colleges and universities) and allows for program-specific accreditation. It also reflects the quality of an institution by defining its resources and programs and commitment to continuous quality improvement, which is commensurate with MUSC’s strategy, Imagine MUSC 2020.

MUSC first attained SACSCOC accreditation in 1971 and has maintained continuous accreditation, which is evaluated every 10 years. Within the fifth year of the 10-year period, an institution must submit a report that verifies that the school continues to meet SACSCOC standards.

Thomas is working with numerous subcommittees related to the reaffirmation process. They include education policy and programs; faculty; financial resources; governance, administration and human resources; institutional effectiveness; library and information technology; physical resources; and student affairs.

Thomas and her team have been working on the project for nearly two years, collecting data and documenting evidence to demonstrate that the institution is in compliance with each standard. 

“We started the self-study process early, so we had time to fix anything that needed to be addressed and ensure we had the best evidence to show that we meet all standards. It’s a lot like preparing for court — you need to prove everything you say,” she said.

In mid-September, MUSC submitted its compliance report (self-study) and supporting evidence that it met compliance with all standards. That document has been reviewed and feedback given to the university.  Now MUSC is preparing to host an on-site review team that will have thoroughly reviewed the report and any additional information prior to its visit in March 2017.

According to Thomas, standards that MUSC must follow are the same for any school in the SACSCOC region that is undergoing reaffirmation of accreditation. All schools, therefore, must show compliance in the same 100 standards whether they are undergraduate, graduate, liberal arts, chiropractic, technical or academic health science centers.

What are the consequences for not meeting SACSCOC accreditation?

Failure to demonstrate compliance to the standards may result in several actions. According to Thomas, SACSCOC provides schools an opportunity to fix the problem (remedial correction) to demonstrate ultimate compliance to standards, but if those are not timely or successful, the consequences can be severe.

Following the site visit and review, SACSCOC assessors will share their outcomes and recommend one of four outcomes: reaffirmation with no referrals, reaffirmation with referrals for one or more standards (opportunity for correction), reaffirmation with referrals with monitoring report (opportunity for correction with a request to report back on progress) and warning/sanction (fix problem immediately).

Warning/sanction is defined as a failure and comes with important consequences to the institution said Thomas. “The institution is placed on probation and failure to comply may lead to the school’s accreditation being revoked.”

According to Thomas, loss of accreditation affects an institution on many levels, threatening its standing and making it less attractive to potential  students. It also can threaten programs by accrediting bodies and organizations such as the Liaison Committee on Medical Education or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. If a school receives a warning or sanction by SACSCOC, it is made public on the SACSCOC webpage.

“MUSC takes this very seriously,” Thomas said, emphasizing the importance of accreditation. “We check ourselves constantly to ensure compliance in all areas. What’s important is to ensure that the MUSC community and leadership are on the right track, and we need to communicate this openly throughout campus.”

In early 2017, the SACSCOC on-site review team will review MUSC’s self-study and conduct a visit from March 6 to 9. Following the visit, the committee will submit its final report to the university and SACSCOC by May, and the university may respond to the final report. In December, the SACSCOC board of trustees will conduct a vote to determine reaffirmation of MUSC as a SACSCOC accredited institution.

QEP: Important part of reaffirmation process

An important aspect of the SACSCOC reaffirmation process is an institution’s Quality Enhancement Plan.

This plan is meant to engage the academic community and address one or multiple issues that contribute to student learning and institutional improvement. MUSC’s QEP is “Team Up for Better Health,” which emphasizes the institution’s interest in ensuring MUSC students graduate with interprofessional teamwork skills that prepare them to be optimal health care providers and biomedical scientists.  

MUSC’s QEP is led by Jeff Borckardt, Ph.D. and members of the QEP subcommittee. During the on-site visit in March 2017, an expert in interprofessional education and the entire team of on-site reviewers will examine the strengths and weaknesses of the QEP and will interview students, faculty and staff. A summary report will be compiled by the visiting committee and findings and recommendations will be shared with the institution’s accreditation team.

Members of MUSC’s QEP Committee include Jeff  Borckardt, Ph.D., chair (Psychiatry); Willette Burnham, Ph.D. (University-Diversity); Nancy Carson, Ph.D. (Health Professions); Thomas Crawford (MUSC Medical Center); Angela Egner (MUSC Medical Center); David Garr, M.D. (SCAHEC); Philip Hall, PharmD (Pharmacy); Donna Kern, M.D. (Medicine); Daniel Lackland, Ph.D. (Graduate Studies); Ragan Leblanc (Health Professions student & Interprofessional Student Advisory Board); Mary Mauldin, EdD. (Instructional Technology & Faculty Resources; William Moran, M.D. (General Internal Medicine & Geriatrics); Michele Ravenel, DMD (Dental Medicine); Danielle Scheurer, M.D. (MUSC Medical Center); Gail Stuart, Ph.D., RN (Nursing); Suzanne Thomas, Ph.D. (Institutional Effectiveness); Andrea Anderson (Graduate Studies student & Interprofessional Student Advisory Board); Jillian Harvey, Ph.D.(Health Professions); Heather Holmes (MUSC Libraries); Angela Dempsey, Ph.D. (Medicine); Lisa Langdale, RN (MUSC Medical Center); Susan Newman, Ph.D. (Nursing); Anita Ramsetty, M.D. (Family Medicine); Dayan Ranwala, Ph.D. (SCTR Institute); and Holly Wise, Ph.D. (Health Professions).

Who is SACSCOC? 
SACSCOC stands for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. It is MUSC’s regional accrediting agency. SACSCOC is to the university what the Joint Commission is to the hospital.

What is regional accreditation? 
Regional accreditation is an attestation by a federally-recognized authority that the university demonstrates compliance with a list of standards regarding the quality and integrity of the institution. Regional accreditation is what allows a school to offer federal financial aid (Title IV) to students.

What is the difference between regional and professional accreditation?  
Regional accreditation is a comprehensive evaluation of the quality and integrity of the entire university. Regional accreditation applies to the university as a whole. Professional accreditation is an in-depth evaluation of the quality of a specific degree program (e.g., DMD; DPT), usually one that leads to professional licensure.

What kinds of things does SACSCOC evaluate us on?                    
There are exactly 100 standards the institution must provide proof that it achieves, including standards related to academic programs, library and learning resources, faculty, student affairs and services, financial resources, physical resources, governance and administration and institutional effectiveness.

Which standards are the most troublesome for schools to demonstrate compliance?  
Standards related to institutional effectiveness, or how the university uses reliable and valid data to inform decisions to drive improvements, are the standards most frequently cited for non-compliance. MUSC’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness is the university’s primary resource to ensure that we engage in and demonstrate data-driven continuous quality improvement.

What happens if we don’t meet all accreditation standards? 
Institutions that fail to demonstrate that they meet all accreditation standards are asked for monitoring reports to show progress toward and ultimately success in meeting the standard(s). If problems continue, the institution may be placed on warning or probation — both are public sanctions that require schools to notify all of their professional accrediting agencies of the sanction. In extreme cases, the institution may lose its accreditation, and thus its eligibility to offer federal financial aid to students.

Do only questionable institutions face sanctions by SACSCOC? 
No, several well-respected schools have been placed on warning or probation by SACSCOC in the last five years, including the University of Virginia and University of North Carolina.

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