Module Two – Initiating the Self-Study Process
The self-study process should be valuable to an institution, enabling it to demonstrate that it meets the Commission’s expectations and to gain insights that will serve the institution well for several years after the Self-Study Report and On-Site Evaluation Visit have been completed. Self-study demonstrates an institution’s commitment to continuous improvement and is used to strengthen and sustain the institution. In addition, institutions should be prepared to engage in a careful analysis of institutional priorities that it has selected in the interest of identifying mission-related areas of improvement, responding effectively to challenges, and identifying and adopting innovative practices to more readily achieve institutional mission, adapt to changes in the higher education sector, and to best serve students and society.
An effective self-study process therefore requires careful preparation. Effort spent preparing for the self-study before attending the Commission’s Self-Study Institute is well-worth the investment because it enables institutional stakeholders to participate in the process more fully and allows the institution’s leadership to more carefully consider who can serve most effectively on the institution’s Steering Committee.
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Early Preparation before the Self-Study Institute
1. Brainstorming about Human Capital and Institutional Resources
Managing a successful self-study process is a major project requiring a significant investment of time, energy, and institutional resources. A self-study process is usually most effective when an institution thinks early about the expertise and perspectives that various members of its community can bring to the process. Institutional leaders and members of the Self-Study Steering Committee might consider brainstorming early about offices or personnel that will play essential roles in the process and the expertise and background of individuals whose involvement will be important to the success of the process. For example, in preparing for self-study some institutions rely on offices that regularly produce financial and institutional research information that could be useful to the Self-Study Steering Committee. Other institutions rely on enrollment and registrar’s offices to provide appropriate perspectives about appropriate assessment of student achievement.
2. Appointing Self-Study Steering Committee Co-Chairs and Members
Early in the process, the Commission communicates with the institution’s president, inviting the institution’s representatives to the Self-Study Institute. If it has not been done already, the president appoints Self-Study Steering Committee chairpersons whose background and expertise qualify them to lead the self-study process from beginning to end. The chairpersons work with the institution’s leadership to identify a core group of individuals who will serve as members of the Steering Committee. Since it is particularly important that there be adequate faculty involvement in the self-study process, appointment of a faculty co-chair may encourage such participation. Involvement of administrators also is important, and appointment of an administrator as a co-chair may be helpful. The use of co-chairs allows representation from several groups, can be helpful in assuring a balance of the skills and attributes necessary for successful leadership of the self-study effort, and may be particularly useful at large, complex, or multi-campus institutions. The Accreditation Liaison Officer (ALO) may or may not be involved in the leadership of the self-study process. However, at a minimum, the ALO continues to serve as the primary contact with MSCHE staff and will be copied on all official communication. As such, the ALO should be cognizant of all activities related to the self-study process. Members of the Self-Study Steering Committee may be appointed or elected. When making the selection of Steering Committee members, institutions should consider carefully the abilities, credibility, availability, and skills of prospective members. Steering Committee members will need the time, resources, and authority to carry out their duties. Characteristics to consider in Steering Committee membership are as follows:
- Are familiar with the institution’s mission and goals;
- Have a sense of commitment to the self-study process and to the institutional priorities of the institution;
- Have a broad institutional perspective that transcends that of their own; and
- Represent various institutional constituencies and include adequate faculty representation. Students, staff, and trustees should be involved in the self-study process as appropriate.
The Steering Committee provides leadership to the entire self-study process. Its responsibilities include, but are not limited to:
- Consult with institutional stakeholders and identify areas of strength and opportunity associated with the achievement of the institution’s mission
- Work with institutional leadership to identify 3-5 institutional priorities to be addressed in the self-study;
- Select the organizational approach to the institution’s self-study;
- Develop the Self-Study Design;
- Establish, charge, and oversee the Working Groups and coordinate their work;
- Ensure that the institutional priorities are adequately addressed in the Working Groups’ analysis;
- Review interim reports that will be used to write the final Self-Study Report;
- Ensure that the Timeline is implemented as planned;
- Employ a Communications Plan to effectively communicate within the institution;
- Identify the most important opportunities for improvement and innovation that will be included in the final Self-Study Report;
- Arrange for institution-wide review of and responses to a draft of the Self-Study Report;
- Oversee the completion of the final Self-Study Report, including the refinement of the Evidence Inventory and completion of the Verification of Compliance materials; and
- Oversee arrangements to host the Evaluation Team visit.
3. Accessing Commission Resources
The Steering Committee and its Working Groups can access Commission resources to orient themselves to the Commission’s expectations, including the standards for accreditation and requirements of affiliation, policies and procedures, and federal compliance requirements. Regular review of resources on the Commission website such as webinars, instructional slides, publications, templates, and other resources that are available to member institutions engaging in the self-study process is always advisable. The Commission staff liaison assigned to the institution is an excellent resource and should be consulted regarding any questions or concerns about the process.
4. Thinking about Evidence
The self-study process requires institutions to identify evidence (reports, policies, bylaws, financial statements, etc.) that demonstrates compliance with the Commission’s expectations. It is usually a promising sign of success in the self-study process when institutions think early about how to collect and store evidence in ways that are direct, efficient, and cost-effective.
Attending the Self-Study Institute
During the Self-Study Institute, Steering Committee co-chairs and other attendees learn about Commission expectations for self-study, such as selecting institutional priorities and aligning them with Commission standards, providing appropriate evidence through the MSCHE portal, selecting an approach to self-study, writing the Self-Study Design, and engaging the institutional community in the self-study process. Attendance at this event also enables the Steering Committee co-chairs to interact with other institutions at the same point in the process and gain exposure to practices that might also work at their own institutions. Institutional representatives who attend the Institute also interact with their Commission staff liaison.
After the Self-Study Institute: Selecting Institutional Priorities and the Self-Study Approach
After attending the Self-Study Institute, the Steering Committee co-chairs consult with institutional stakeholders to consider together how the self-study process and report can be most effectively organized. The Steering Committee co-chairs are then prepared to engage the institution’s community in discussions about identifying the institutional priorities that will be evaluated in the Self-Study Report and which organizational approach will be used to organize it.
Figure 1: Selecting Institutional Priorities and Self-Study Approach
1. Reflecting about Institutional Mission
A key goal of self-study is for an institution to examine the extent to which it is successfully achieving its mission. Prior to and shortly after attending the Commission’s Self Study Institute, the Steering Committee co-chairs should engage campus leadership and, where appropriate, members of the Steering Committee, in a process of reflection about the institution’s mission, particularly regarding areas of challenge and promise. Alternatively, if the institution has recently undertaken mission review, the institution’s leadership and members of the Steering Committee should begin by considering the results of the recent review and then suggest the institutional priorities to be addressed in the Self-Study Report.Those participating in such reflection might pose questions such as:
- What aspects of the institution’s mission are particularly salient at this point in the institution’s history?
- As the institution endeavors to achieve its mission, what does assessment information say about opportunities for improvement and innovation?
- What mission-related challenges and opportunities are appropriate for self-study review?
Engaging institutional leaders and members of the Steering Committee in such a process of inquiry early can further promote conversations about what institutional priorities could be addressed in the Self-Study Report. Review of the institution’s strategic plan and goals could also provide valuable insight into institutional priorities.
2. Selecting Institutional Priorities
The selection of institutional priorities that matter to the institution is key to ensuring that the Self-Study Report and process is informative, insightful, and valuable. Institutional priorities should therefore be forward-looking, worth the time taken to include in the self-study process, and, as noted above, relate to mission. Through rigorous self-study review, inclusion of these institutional priorities in the self-study process should be promising enough to benefit the institution over the long term, consistent with the Commission’s mission to “ensure institutional accountability, self-appraisal, improvement, and innovation through peer review and the rigorous application of standards within the context of institutional mission.” After reflecting about mission and attending the Self-Study Institute, the Steering Committee co-chairs consult with institutional stakeholders to select three to five specific institutional priorities to be evaluated in the Self-Study Report. When determining which priorities are to be evaluated in the Self-Study Report, discussions might result in more than three to five priorities. When this is the case, Steering Committee and institutional leaders evaluate which priorities best align with the institution’s mission and with Commission standards to focus the self-study process on those priorities that are most appropriate for review.
3. Choosing a Self-Study Approach
Once an institution has chosen 3-5 priorities, the Steering Committee may choose one of two approaches to organizing the Self-Study Report:
Table 1: Choosing a Self-Study Approach
Figure 2: Standards-Based Approach
Standards-Based Approach: This approach is best suited for institutions seeking to focus on a comprehensive review of the institution and is required of institutions seeking an initial grant of accreditation by the Commission. All Standards must be addressed to facilitate a comprehensive re-evaluation of the institution.
Figure 3: Priorities-Based Approach
Priorities-Based Approach: This approach is appropriate for institutions with a track record of compliance and for whom an assessment of progress on institutional priorities makes sense in their strategic planning process. All Standards must be addressed to facilitate a comprehensive re-evaluation of the institution.
- Result from broad institutional stakeholder input after considering assessment results.
- Relate to an institution’s mission, vision (where relevant), and the institution’s strategic goals.
- Focus on institutional improvement.
- Clearly align with Commission’s Standards for Accreditation and Requirements of Affiliation.
Communication of Selected Institutional Priorities to Institutional Constituents and Commission
After the institutional priorities and the preferred self-study approach are identified, the Steering Committee co-chairs may choose to participate in a conference call with their Commission staff liaison to discuss their premise for self-study review. Then, the Steering Committee and institutional stakeholders communicate the selected institutional priorities and self-study approach to institutional constituents.
Such communication can be achieved in several ways, such as through:
- Campus-sponsored media
- A campus kick-off event
- Formal campus announcement, such as campus emails or presentation of institutional priorities to a campus-wide audience
The Steering Committee organizes several Working Groups to research and report on their designated standards and priorities. As noted above, Working Groups are usually assigned based on the approach to self-study. The relationship between the Steering Committee and the Working Groups can be structured in various ways. For the Steering Committee to interact with each working group, Steering Committee members may be designated to serve as chairs of the Working Groups or Working Groups may be allowed to select their own chairs who report to the Steering Committee. What is most important is that (1) working group members represent a broad range of constituencies within the institution, (2) the Working Groups have designated leaders to keep them on task and on schedule, (3) the Working Groups understand their charge and abide by it; and (4) a mechanism for accountability and effective communication between the Steering Committee and Working Groups has been established.
The Steering Committee is responsible for analyzing interim reports from the various Working Groups to determine the following:
- the standards and institutional priorities have been addressed,
- assumptions are clear,
- data demonstrate institutional performance,
- statistics are appropriately interpreted and discussed, and
- appropriate analysis and opportunities for improvement or innovation are included.
It will be the Steering Committee’s responsibility to assemble and edit the drafts submitted by each of the Working Groups and to prepare the final Self-Study Report and related documents.
Keys to Success
Initiating the self-study process can be a complex process requiring involvement by multiple stakeholders and consultation with Commission staff. Additional advice about initiating the process, based on lessons learned from prior cohorts of institutions that have done so include the following, also summarized in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Keys to Success Early in the Process
- Communicate the usefulness of self-study to motivate the institution. Speak often with the institutional community about how the process will allow the institution to gain insights for continuous improvement, to keep the mission and vision of the institution current, and to receive thoughtful and informed suggestions from peer evaluators.
- Keep institutional leaders informed and invested in the process. Inform the president, board members, and other leaders about the benefits of self-study as well as the resources that will be needed as the institution moves along with the self-study process. Inform the community about progress to date and opportunities to participate in the process.
- Think through process logistics early, ranging from initial meetings to discuss institutional mission and institutional priorities to ensuring that on-site evaluation team members are well accommodated. This often requires early brainstorming about leveraging the expertise of various experts across campus, such as information technology, library services, workforce development, business services, and administrative professionals.
- Document a culture of continuous improvement. At the beginning of a self-study process, it is always advisable to focus on ongoing assessment and continuous quality improvement processes that already exist rather than creating something entirely new.
Disclaimer: The material provided in this guide was developed to provide clarity for the self-study process. Commission Policy and Procedures will govern in the case of a conflict with this material. For any questions about an institution’s accreditation status or for additional information about MSCHE’s standards for accreditation, requirements of affiliation, policies, and procedures, you should contact MSCHE staff. This material is not intended as a substitute for professional advice from MSCHE staff and use of the material does not guarantee any specific accreditation outcome.