Professional certification and Institutional accreditation: Accountability you can trust


A few years ago while conducting some research on digital communication technology adoption and uses, I was required to fill out a rather lengthy form for an Institutional Research Board (IRB). Since the study involved human subjects, I was required to have certification (Human Subjects Research [HSR]: Social and Behavioral Sciences. Collaborate Institutional Training Initiative [CITI] #5872897) that demonstrated that when conducting research with human subjects I actually knew the ethical and legal issues involved and how to appropriately apply them to protect my subjects from any potential risks or harm. The certification required several hours of reading and studying as well as several tests that measured my ability to understand and apply the material, but it also provided the IRB with assurance that “I knew what I was doing.” With the credential of certification, my IRB application was accepted. I was accepted.

In the academic arena I have participated in academic committees of deans and chairs, presidential reviews, self-studies, and committees for accreditation purposes. These activities are sometimes referred to as “necessary evils” due to their extensive reporting requirements and ongoing review. They take long hours of research, extensive meetings with fellow academics, and coordination of several faculty and staff constituencies. However, the resulting work products demonstrated that the academics of an institution of higher learning relatively equaled its peers by meeting a minimum of standards.* When accreditation boards grant accreditation to a college or university, they recognize the equal standing of the institution with its peers. In the fraternity of academe, they are accepted.

For years, some independent schools resisted this process of review. They thought they were doing just fine without someone else looking over their “academic shoulders.” But all of that has changed in recent years as more and more regionally accredited schools have begun to wall-off transfer students and graduates from non-accredited schools and most nationally accredited schools. (Regional versus national accreditation is another debate for another day. In short, only regional accreditation is widely accepted.) After all, what good is accreditation if you don’t respect its value by maintaining a reasonable level of entrance requirements? And furthermore, how can schools evaluate the credits of other schools to match their own without any standards—owing to the fact that you would be comparing accredited and non-accredited credits which are not necessarily equally obtained—by which to measure them? In similar fashion, too many social media “experts” are overtly dismissive of the need for professional certification within their field. Some are even actively resisting any efforts to require minimum standards of professionalism, skills, knowledge, and a code of ethics.

Although accreditation and certification are not the same, they represent some assurance of standards being met either by an individual, group, organization, or institution. Certification usually results from a demonstration—an exam, for example—of a set of minimum credentials that individuals must meet and maintain with ongoing service and training. In addition, some re-certifications require additional exams and/or submission of a portfolio of professional work.  On the other hand, accreditation sets minimum standards that organizations, institutions, and businesses must maintain. Accreditation periods range from 3 to 10 years depending upon the initial and continuing standing of the institution. But the essential commonality here is that both accreditation and certification require a baseline to be met, thereby, providing reasonable and customary assurances of qualities and competencies to various affected publics and individuals. Both certification and accreditation follow on with a process of continuing review after the initial award. This is important because the process of review requires individuals to advance practices of on-going development by actual professional work in the field and keeping current with contemporary best practices in the profession. For institutions with accreditation, this requires keeping faculty credentials, student services, and administrative policy and procedures consistent with academics and necessitates an investment in a culture of development and change.

More than ever before in our history, we are working within a global, knowledge-based economy. Years ago when you needed something done beyond your expertise, you would have just dealt with someone within your little domain of colleagues, associates, and friends. You dealt with your need in a very “local context.” Right? But in a global, knowledge-based society with professional and social networks within worldwide networks, your ability to leverage talent and skills in a “global context” is limitless. But how do you trust someone you’ve never met or worked with before? Furthermore, how does a prospective student seeking a college degree make an informed choice? Simple. You can easily check someone’s credentials, or a student can obtain accreditation information about nearly any school. Thus, certification provides a minimum confidence in an unknown individual’s knowledge and abilities. It assures others that an official organization has assessed their bono fides. This same principle can be applied to a student seeking college training. Accreditation and certification provide verifiable credentials, and with credentials comes accountability that can be trusted.

There are many other issues involving certification and accreditation, and I hope to cover some of those topics in future articles. Please feel free to contact me with your suggestions and advise. I would appreciate the opportunity to further discuss this issue with you. I do value each comment left by readers, so contribute your thoughts below or share this article through your various social media channels.

* Note to readers: This does not suggest in any way that accreditation makes institutions of higher learning equal. They certainly are not, but rather accreditation insures that at “that point”—the minimum standards, they are relatively on par. A word such as “relatively” must be used since no two institutions are exactly alike, therefore, it would be impossible to create a measurement that would produce two “equal” of anything. We must remind ourselves of the reality that you can use metrics all you want, but all institutions of higher learning are organic and constantly changing. Therefore, “relatively equal” is much more appropriate. 

About the Author:

Dr. John Weidert is an independent educator, communicator, and practitioner of educational and organizational leadership, communication, and media studies.