Accreditation in crisis 

Chancellor Jim Rogers warns of potential threat to NSHE programs

Accreditation in crisis

Illustration by Jason Emord

Rumors spread about what UNLV could face if Gov. Jim Gibbons’ biannual budget suggestions pass the state legislature this session, but few tales match the terror of the possibility of this institution losing accreditation.

Chancellor Jim Rogers’ most recent memorandum to the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents discussed the threats posed to accreditation of Nevada’s schools.

“Nevadans often take for granted that the universities will continue to be here… But each of the system’s seven degree-granting institutions is totally dependent on certification or accreditation… to stay in business.”

The handbook of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the organization that grades most of Nevada’s schools, defines accreditation as “a process of recognizing educational institutions for performance, integrity and quality that entitles them to the confidence of the educational community and the public.”

In short, it is a way to show that education at a given institution is respectable and its graduates valuable.

According to Cliff Ferry, retired administrator for Great Basic College and member of the Nevada State Board of Education, “One highly likely consequence of the funding crisis for Nevada’s education is that NSHE institutions will have a tough time meeting the standards of the… NWCCU.”

“A lot of those accreditation reviews include financial stability,” explained UNLV President David B. Ashley in an address to the CSUN Senate on Feb. 2. “So for example, if there was a degree program that did not have enough faculty to offer all the required courses, accreditation would be in jeopardy.”

Like most schools, individual degree programs at UNLV carry accreditation in addition to that of the university.

In a letter included in Rogers’ memorandum, Ferry predicted that “continued funding shortfalls will jeopardize both regional [university] and specialized accreditation.”

Ashley said he was not concerned about UNLV losing accreditation as an institution, “but… if we get cut too much and aren’t able to replace [lost faculty] then some of those programs might be at risk.”

Achieving or retaining accreditation is a two-step process. First, an institution must present a comprehensive self-study detailing everything from its mission and goals and student services to its finances and physical resources. Then a delegation of auditors from similar institutions visit the campus to determine the accuracy of the report.

“Under the best of circumstances accreditation is not fun and can be quite stressful for the institution being evaluated,” Ferry said.

“In the worst… it’s pure hell,” he said, adding parenthetically, “NSHE 2009-2010?”

Three Nevada institutions face accreditation visits this year and next: Nevada State College this semester and both Western Nevada College and UNLV in spring 2010.

“Obviously the Commission staff and visiting team will be aware of financial problems in the state,” Ferry said. He is concerned that Nevada’s continuing budget problems will create deficiencies in the higher education system and make existing deficits more obvious.

Ferry explained why maintaining accreditation is important for the future of the higher education system.

“When an institution or system has prolonged accreditation problems, student and faculty recruitment and retention become more difficult with each passing year.”

In a statement to the chancellor, Ashley explicated that programs must be accredited to offer meaningful benefits to students as they enter jobs as well as employers looking to hire qualified workers. “Our students benefit from [UNLV’s 50 accredited programs] by gaining access to professional opportunities they would not otherwise have access to in this region were it not for our accreditation success,” he said.

According to Ashley, the health of Nevada’s economy depends on the continuation of accreditation of NSHE institutions.

“The impact of accreditation loss would be a severe blow to this region’s workforce, particularly at the highly-skilled professional level,” he said. “Imagine what the losses of nurses, lab clinicians, lawyers, dentists, accountants, civil engineers, social workers, dieticians, physical therapists and architects… would mean to our region, where there are already critical workforce shortages in these high-demand disciplines.”

UNLV alumna Lisa Story has held technical jobs in the public and private sector in Nevada, and claimed in her letter to Ashley that “the main roadblock to bringing more high-tech, well-paid jobs to Nevada [is] the state’s lack of commitment to adequately fund the university system.”

Ashley expressed the belief that accreditation for NSHE institutions is crucial to the educational progress of the state.

“We cannot afford to take a giant step backwards by losing accredited programs and that is just what the proposed budget cuts would do.”