Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Should Branch Campuses Consider Separate Accreditation?

Over the past year, I’ve spoken with several people whose institutions are considering whether to pursue separate regional accreditation for their branch campuses.  The University of South Florida did that, just a few years ago, but now I wonder if there might be broader interest in the idea.

In the past, I’ve made a strong distinction between multi-campus institutions, such as the University of North Carolina, where campuses have a relatively high level of autonomy, and institutions with a main campus and branches.  Shared accreditation and curriculum oversight from the main campus are almost part of defining what it is to be a “branch.”  (See my previous posts on branch characteristics; the blog is searchable.)

Nevertheless, I can understand why separate accreditation for branches might be attractive.  As branch campuses become more deeply engaged in their communities and mature as institutions in their own right, they need to provide those courses and programs that students seek.  Separate accreditation might provide relief from arbitrary, unreasonable interference from main campus departments. 

In addition, the most attractive programs on branch campuses are likely to be in business, health care, and education.  In other words, programs that often are accredited at the program level, as well as falling under the broader umbrella of the institution’s regional accreditation.

In many cases, the requirements of program accreditors apply on all campuses, and at times they may be difficult to achieve on branch campuses.  For example, if your business program is AACSB accredited, your branches should meet the same requirements for faculty credentials as your main campus.  If that means hiring faculty with Ph.D.’s in business, it can be very expensive, provided you can even recruit qualified individuals.  Other AACSB limits placed on teaching loads may make it difficult to work efficiently with main campus faculty members, as well.

A third consideration is that more institutions seem to be developing unique programs on their branches.  I don’t believe unique programs necessarily require separate regional accreditation—it certainly didn’t at Ohio University—but maybe there are some advantages to giving campuses more freedom to develop curriculum, without undue interference from the main campus’s process.  I can imagine this being especially true if the branch is in a clearly distinct service environment.

I still believe that branches gain more than they lose by being an integral part of their home institution.  The “brand” supports marketing and recruitment, a single curriculum helps assure quality, and most institutions award the same diploma to students, regardless of which campus they attended.  Much is at stake in a world with heightened competition, and many students care more about program, flexibility and cost than they care about brand.  Leaders should take care about seeking separate regional accreditation, but maybe it isn’t the non-starter that I thought it was.

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