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 are 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 selected in the interest of identifying mission-related areas of improvement,
  • respond actively to challenges,
  • identify and adopt innovative practices to achieve institutional mission,
  • adapt to changes in the higher education sector, and
  • best serve students and society more readily.

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 consider more carefully who can serve most effectively on the institution’s Steering Committee.

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Early Preparation before the Self-Study Institute (Module 2, Section 1)

1. Brainstorming about Human Capital and Institutional Resources

Managing a successful self-study process requires 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 might consider brainstorming early about:

  • People who will play essential roles in the process;
  • Expertise and background of individuals whose involvement will be important to the success of the process;
  • Faculty and staff with expertise in the areas of the standards;
  • People who regularly produce financial and institutional research information;
  • Academic departments (chairs or program directors);
  • People who provide assessment of student learning and educational goal data;
  • People who provide perspectives about support for the educational experience; and
  • People who provide data related to institutional effectiveness (programs and services)

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. 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 is also important, and the 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 (Middle States Commission on Higher Education) 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 carefully consider the abilities, credibility, availability, and skills of prospective members. Steering Committee members will need the time, resources, and authority to perform their duties.

Characteristics to consider in the Steering Committee membership:

  • Familiar with the institution’s mission, goals, and planning processes;
  • A sense of commitment to engaging in the self-study process and to evaluating the institutional priorities of the institution;
  • A commitment to engaging in a self-study process that objectively and rigorously evaluates compliance with Commission expectations and the institution’s selected priorities;
  • Broad institutional perspectives that transcend that of their own; and
  • Represent various institutional constituencies and include adequate faculty and staff representation. Students and trustees should be involved in the self-study process as appropriate.

The Steering Committee provides leadership to the entire self-study process and their responsibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Consult with campus constituencies and identify areas of strength and opportunity associated with the achievement of the institution’s mission;
  • Work with institutional leadership to identify 3–4 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 Timetable 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 Vice President for Institutional Field Relations (VPIFR) 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, assessment approaches, 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. Please note each institution will upload evidence into the MSCHE portal when the self-study report is finalized. More information is available in Module Seven.

Attending the Self-Study Institute (Module 2, Section 2)

The institution will participate in the Self-Study Institute, which is training on the self-study evaluation process and how to write an effective Self-Study Design. Self-Study Chairpersons of the Steering Committee will attend the Commission’s Self-Study Institute approximately two years prior to the On-Site Evaluation Visit. (Accreditation Review Cycle and Monitoring Procedures, Effective Date: October 1, 2020)

As a result of participation in the Self-Study Institute and subsequent institutional training activities (conference call and Self-Study Preparation Visit), institutional representatives will be able to:

  1. Guide their institutions through the self-study evaluation process.
  2. Write an effective Self-Study Design to serve as a guide for the self-study process and enable the steering committee and working groups to conceptualize and organize relevant tasks.

In addition, participants will explore:

  1. The value of mission-centered peer review for continuous improvement and reaffirmation.
  2. The accreditation review cycle and eight-year cycle including monitoring and the Commissions’ levels of decision making.
  3. The expectations for compliance with:
    • Standards for Accreditation
    • Requirements of Affiliation,
    • Policies and Procedures, and
    • Federal Compliance Requirements
  1. The importance of the Self-Study Design to guide the self-study process and enable the steering committee and working groups to conceptualize and organize relevant tasks.
  2. The significance of the Evidence Inventory, which documents the institution’s compliance with the Commission’s standards for accreditation, requirements of affiliation, policies and procedures, and federal compliance requirements.
  3. The purpose of the on-site evaluation visit.
  4. The focus on assessment throughout self-study evaluation and on-site evaluation visit.

Further, attendance at the Self-Study Institute allows participants to learn from the Self-Study experiences of others and develop or renew relationships with MSCHE accreditation relations representatives.

After the Self-Study Institute: Selecting Institutional Priorities and the Self-Study Approach (Module 2, Section 3)

Reflection about Institutional Mission, Selecting Institutional Priorities, Selecting a 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 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 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.

The institution’s strategic plan is often the source of institutional priorities. However, institutions should consider that strategic plans typically span a longer period than a self-study process, have purposes much broader than reflection and institutional improvement, and often have a larger number of priorities than what is expected for the self-study. Therefore, although the strategic plan may inform the institutional priorities for self-study, the institution’s strategic goals need to be analyzed within the framework of the standards for accreditation to select which priorities will be examined during self-study.

After reflecting about institutional mission and strategic goals, the Steering Committee co-chairs will consult with institutional stakeholders to select three to four 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 four 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.

Note that all priorities must be aligned with at least one standard, but not all standards need to align with a priority.

3. Choosing a Self-Study Approach

Once an institution has chosen 3-4 priorities, the Steering Committee may choose one of two approaches to organizing the Self-Study Report. See Table 1: Choosing a Self-Study Design for further information.

Table 1: Choosing a Self-Study Design

Element Standards-Based Approach Priorities-Based Approach
Organization of Self-Study Report Organized by Standard; usually, one chapter for each Standard. Organized by Priority; one chapter for every priority.
Integration and Evaluation All standards must be addressed in the Self-Study Report. Priorities integrated within the standards, where appropriate. All standards must be addressed in the Self-Study Report. For those standards not aligned with a priority, one chapter is devoted to evaluating each standard.
Standards integrated within the priorities, where appropriate.
Working Groups Organized by Standard. Organized by priority.
One working group responsible for those standards not integrated within a priority.
Evidence Inventory In both cases, the Evidence Inventory is used as a tool to organize evidence by Requirements of Affiliation, as well as the standards for Accreditation and their Criteria.

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.

Priorities-Based Approach: This approach may be appropriate for institutions with a history of compliance and for whom an assessment of progress on institutional priorities makes sense in their strategic planning process. However, all standards must be addressed to facilitate a comprehensive evaluation of the institution.

Institutional Priorities
  • Result from broad campus constituencies’ 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 at least one of the standards for accreditation.

Communication of Selected Institutional Priorities to Campus Constituencies and Commission (Module 2, Section 4)

After the institutional priorities and the preferred self-study approach are identified, the Steering Committee co-chairs participate in a conference call with their Vice President for Institutional Field Relations to discuss their premise for self-study review. This call usually occurs one to two months after the Self-Study Institute.

The Steering Committee and institutional leadership communicate the selected institutional priorities and self-study approach to institutional constituents. Such communication can be achieved in several ways:

  • A campus-sponsored media event
  • A campus kick-off event
  • Formal campus announcement such as an email or presentation

It is important to note that the self-study needs to be an inclusive process, which should include the student voice in institutional conversations on the priorities as well as other aspects of the self-study process.

Working Groups (Module 2, Section 5)

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. Developing explicit descriptions of the responsibilities and expectations of Working Group members will help lead to an efficient and effective process. Important aspects include:

  1. Working Group members represent a broad range of institutional perspectives
  2. Working Groups have designated leaders to keep them on task and on schedule
  3. Working Groups understand their charge and abide by it
  4. Steering Committee and Working Groups established a mechanism for accountability and effective communication between them
  5. Working Groups conduct a thorough analysis of the institution’s compliance with the standards and identification of opportunities for improvement or innovation to be submitted to the Steering Committee for eventual inclusion in the Self-Study Report.

The Steering Committee is responsible for analyzing interim reports from the various Working Groups to determine the following:

  • the standards and institutional priorities are 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 is 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. Additionally, the Steering Committee is responsible for:

  • identifying the outcomes of the Self-Study,
  • oversight of development and refinement of the Evidence Inventory,
  • developing the lines of inquiry for each working group, and
  • organizing any site-visit activities.

Keys to Success (Module 2, Section 6)

Usefulness of the Self-Study

  • Focus on Institutional priorities
  • Address all seven standards
  • Ensure linkages to the institutional mission
  • Make it a living document, “one that can be used after the team leaves”


  • Develop strategies to communicate the purpose of the self-study and accreditation
  • Talk to the present, executive leadership, and others, to emphasize the importance of their voices in the process
  • Provide regular information and updates

Logistics and Planning

  • Get an early start with planning
  • Seek tech support as needed
  • Expect glitches and the unexpected

Continuous Improvement

  • Collect data and analyze findings
  • Document use of assessment results
  • Achieve appropriate balance of descriptive narrative, analysis, and documentation

Resource Toolbox (Module 2, Section 7)

As noted above, The Steering Committee and its Working Groups can access Commission resources to orient themselves to the Commission’s expectations, including:

Regular review of resources on the Commission website such as webinars, instructional slides or videos, publications, templates, and other resources that are available to member institutions engaging in the self-study process is always advisable. The Vice President for Institutional Field Relations (VPIFR) assigned to the institution is an excellent resource and should be consulted regarding any questions or concerns about the process.


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.