Using Accreditation to Support Innovation

ASCCC Accreditation Committee
ASCCC Accreditation Committee

For faculty busy with teaching, grading, and supporting students, accreditation rarely ranks at the top of their list of concerns until they receive an email asking them to serve on their college’s accreditation writing team or to attend an accreditation planning meeting. Unfortunately, this situation creates a lost opportunity where faculty see accreditation as a compliance issue rather than as a framework of quality where the standards and mechanisms to improve student outcomes are supported. In short, faculty miss the possibility for accreditation standards and requirements to support the very innovations that can help students succeed in their goals.

Community colleges serve more than one-third of students in the United States and have a higher student population of underrepresented groups (Francis, et. al., 2019). Additionally, community college is often a best fit for students that are financially disadvantaged, are in rural areas, or have career goals that could not be supported at the university level (Ocean, et. al., 2022). The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Vision for Success, local student equity goals and plans, and the directives found in legislation such as AB 1705 (Irwin, 2017) and AB 1111 (Berman, 2021) lay out system goals and a general set of priorities to guide innovation to support the system’s diverse student populations. Innovative institutions succeed in their missions to serve students when equity is at the center of their planning and actions, and within this context of diversity and change they create along with the accrediting commission a shared vision of accomplishment to help build community and leverage resources to support students’ academic and career goals through carefully considered and courageous innovation.

In this environment, California’s community colleges are encouraged by their accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), to serve diverse learners by developing innovative and flexible learning models and program designs. For example, eight California community colleges are experimenting with competency-based education as part of a pilot program. “Competencies are statements of what students can do as a result of their learning at an institution of higher education” (ACCJC, 2020), and competency-based education (CBE) is an approach to program completion where students are held accountable for learning by demonstrating mastery of knowledge, skills, and abilities through rigorous and authentic assessment and not by the notion of the Carnegie unit that defines learning as time spent in a classroom. The ACCJC has adopted policy language to guide colleges through the Substantive Change Process for competency-based education, a requirement of the U.S. Department of Education for offering CBE, and has partnered with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to support the pilot colleges to understand accreditation policies and federal requirements. In this instance, accreditation standards help foster innovation rather than hinder it.

Microcredentials are another innovative program design model. Microcredentials are short, discipline- and industry-focused learning experiences that meet workplace needs and are usually aligned with standards in industry. Although similar to existing credit and noncredit certificates offered by California’s community colleges, microcredentials are usually presented as digital badges that document specific competencies and skills rather than course titles, are acquired through a learning activity or project, and are often stacked within longer credential programs (Maxwell, et. al., 2020). In this instance, colleges can benefit from reviewing the ACCJC’s Transfer of Credit policies (ACCJC, 2023) and use those standards as a basis for developing novel and innovative ways to transcript student achievement in language that is translatable to other institutions as well as to employers.

Distance education is another area ripe for innovation where accreditation standards exist to guide, not thwart, innovation. While distance education is not new, advances in technology allow for an increasing number of methods for instruction. New technologies allow for increased student interaction centered around course learning objectives and critical thinking while creating a social presence and a community feel. Ironically, technology may “humanize” an online learning environment where students connect and build relationships, helping with student engagement and student retention (Bickle & Rucker, 2018). With distance education, one can again find support for innovation in ACCJC accreditation standards and commission policies. Per the ACCJC, institutions must ensure learning opportunities “have equivalent quality, accountability, and focus on student outcomes, regardless of mode of delivery” (ACCJC, 2021a). Accreditation tools and processes such as substantive change and the commission’s Distance Education Review Guidelines (ACCJC, 2022, p.102-104) not only provide support for meeting federal regulations but also establish effective practices and quality frameworks colleges can invest in to support the constantly changing world of online education.

Distance education, competency-based education, microcredentials, and other innovations such as credit for prior learning highlight the need for colleges to innovate in order to provide diverse learners more personalized learning experiences and opportunities that respect their psychological needs, intrinsic motivations, and desires for self-determination (Alamri, et. al., 2020). The hard work and leadership faculty provide to innovate in these areas and more is supported in the member-created accreditation standards, policies, and evaluation procedures of the ACCJC. This fact is seen most clearly in the ACCJC Policy on Social Justice, which requires member institutions to maintain an “ongoing culture of continuous quality improvement to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion” through the effective use of delivery modes and teaching methods “to improve equity and expects that institutional policies and practices foster a sense of inclusion and belonging among its diverse stakeholders” (ACCJC, 2021b). This shared vision for equity opens doors for innovation to achieve more equitable student achievement outcomes.


Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (2020). Policy on competency based education.
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (2021a). Policy on distance and on correspondence education.
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (2021b). Policy on social justice
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (2022). Guide to Institutional Self-Evaluation, Improvement, and Peer Review.
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (2023). Policy on transfer of credit.
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Ocean, M., McLaughlin, J., & Hodes, J. (2022).
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