Accreditation as a lever for institutional change: Focusing on student learning outcomes

Hania Ferrara, University of Pennsylvania


This qualitative study of six academic programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University examined how University leaders used the requirements for student learning outcomes assessment, imposed by the accrediting bodies for professional programs, as a leveraging device to institute and advance student learning outcomes assessment programs in those academic departments or programs that do not have such requirements. The study used an embedded multiple-case study method to examine five programs accredited by discipline-specific accreditation agencies, and one currently seeking initial accreditation. Data were gathered from documents, archival records and 51 interviews, including the University president, provosts, deans, directors, key members of the faculty, chairs of the accreditation peer review teams, and representatives from professional accreditation agencies. The study showed how leadership and dedication, coupled with external pressures provided by accreditors demanding an increased commitment to student learning outcomes and assessment procedures, changed the course of several programs and set key academic units on a path to academic distinction and fiscal soundness. The real institutional improvements for the University came from the emphasis on students and learning and not from simply achieving the accreditations status per se. The study also showed that the University's leaders used the accreditation requirements of professional accrediting agencies as a leveraging tool to spread good assessment practices to other non-accredited programs in the institution. Significant factors for success are having several successful professional accreditation efforts with demonstrable achievement in meeting the standards for student learning outcomes assessment in one academic college, and leadership that believes in the importance of assessment and sees the leveraging opportunity presented by the professional accreditations. Persistence and consensus must also be built among the faculty to move forward with the necessary curriculum and process changes. Student learning outcomes assessment practices can be spread to programs that do not have professional accreditors through changes in the general education requirements with the support of the faculty of the professionally accredited programs. Once accepted, assessment processes can more easily be applied to majors and programs without professional accreditations as more faculty grow comfortable with assessment techniques and come to realize their value.

Subject Area

School administration|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Ferrara, Hania, "Accreditation as a lever for institutional change: Focusing on student learning outcomes" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3255872.