A Higher Standard in Higher Education
Academic accreditation is a special status that is granted to an institution or program that meets or exceeds the high standards of educational quality and student achievement. Today, the gold standard in academic accreditation is recognition from the Council on Occupational Education, widely known as COE. This nationally recognized accrediting agency has a legacy of assuring quality and integrity in its member institutions for more than 50 years. First founded in 1971 as a regional accrediting agency within the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), COE distinguished itself from SACS in 1995 by expanding its scope to postsecondary career and technical education institutions all throughout the nation.
Today, COE accreditation is deemed the ultimate seal of excellence, honesty and integrity in technical education. The honor is valued by COE members, sought by prospective students, respected by employers, and even required for financial aid by state and federal agencies. Yet, COE accreditation is exclusively reserved for the top institutions that make the grade.
Challenging Lessons in Preparation
For more than 50 years, COE has recognized Tennessee College of Applied Technology Athens (TCAT Athens) for excellence in technical education with its seal of accreditation. TCAT Athens offers access to lifelong education and training for individuals, businesses and the industrial community through a broad range of programs, including Administrative Office Technology, Automotive Technology, Collision Repair Technology, Computer Electronics, Machine Tool Technology, Mechanical Maintenance Electrical and Instrumentation (Electro-Mechanical), Pharmacy Technology, Practical Nursing and Welding. While TCAT Athens is known for providing students with marketable skills through a thorough curriculum, hands-on training and lab experience, what sets TCAT Athens apart from other technical institutions is its progressive approach to teaching key behavioral skills for the workplace in the classroom.
“Our programs are set up like work to train students in both technical skills and workplace skills to prepare students to be excellent employees,” said Mr. Stewart Smith, President of TCAT Athens. “This means proper attendance, being on time, dedication and reliability.”
As a result, graduates of TCAT Athens are highly desired by employers, with many programs boasting 100% job placement. TCAT Athens also partners with local employers by hosting open forums to hear their demands and innovating new programs to prepare students to meet their needs. Such strides have helped TCAT Athens maintain COE accreditation, which earns the respect and response of students, employers and the industrial community.
When an institution is first awarded COE accreditation, it designates the number of years until this status must be reaffirmed. TCAT Athens faces this rigorous test and task every six years. The reaffirmation process calls for meeting the same requirements as initial accreditation and proves to be just as challenging because it demands months of preparation, in-depth reporting and adhering to strict deadlines. To ensure that TCAT Athens is always up to the challenge, the institution appointed Kim Davis, Vice President of TCAT Athens, as chair of the accreditation process.
“We have special committees that handle the accreditation requirements and keep our standards up to date,” Ms. Davis explained.
The reaffirmation process involves attending a self-study workshop, preparing a self-study report and playing host to a COE committee visit. This committee comes to evaluate the institution based on established standards and criteria. The committee carefully reviews the self-study report and supporting documentation, along with observing the institution’s facilities and services, and conducting interviews with faculty, students and advisory board members.
“While doing the paperwork and getting everything together and reported can be challenging,” Ms. Davis explained, “The biggest challenge is the surprise visits where the COE committee simply shows up at your door.”
On occasion, the COE committee makes unannounced focus visits to review whether an institution is upholding the proper standards. During these visits, the committee can request any documentation it needs to confirm an institution’s ongoing compliance with accreditation requirements.
Advancing to the Head of the Class
COE committee visits typically last for three days. While their visits are brief, their focus is extensive, from reviewing documentation to conducting interviews, touring facilities and evaluating student programs.
The morning before the committee departs, they present a detailed report with their findings, comments and recommendations for improvement to the institution. While the process may seem daunting, TCAT Athens sees it as an invaluable experience that only makes them a better institution and a better choice for both students and employers.
“We look at COE accreditation as something that’s beneficial to us,’” explained Mr. Smith. “It helps us learn to be more efficient and come up with new initiatives that benefit our students and employers year after year.”
Celebrating 50 Years of Accreditation: A Remarkable Achievement
TCAT Athens was one of 21 institutions first accredited by the newly-formed Council in 1971. Throughout the last fifty years, the institution conducted no less than 8 self-studies and hosted as many visits to ensure compliance with the standards of accreditation at intervals averaging every 6 years. Notably, throughout the last half century, TCAT Athens consistently maintained its ‘good standing’ status with the Council, having never been placed on any type of restrictive violation status which would call into question the quality and integrity of its administration, operations, or programs. This solid reputation and well-documented compliance with standards that ensure quality and integrity in career and technical education is truly a remarkable achievement.