The Tennessee Board of Regents system, the seventh largest system of higher education in the nation, consists of 46 educational institutions, 27 of which are colleges of applied technology. Spread across both urban and rural regions of Tennessee, these institutions are singularly focused on workforce development. According to the TBR, the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) “are the state’s premier providers of technical education for workers to obtain the technical skills and professional education necessary for advancement in today’s competitive job market.” More than 50 types of technical programs are available in manufacturing, transportation, allied health, construction and other sectors. Approximately 30,000 students enroll every year with full-time and part-time status, as well as for special industry training.
Out of the 27 institutions, 26 are accredited by the Council on Educational Occupation (COE). The relationship between COE and TCAT institutions dates back 45 years. In fact, the same year that COE was established, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology – Shelbyville received its initial accreditation.
The accreditation process can be time consuming. It requires a commitment from all parties not only to the process itself but to the long-term improvement of the institution and its programs. Resources aside, if the accrediting agency is not thorough in its evaluation and does not measure the key standards that are vital to the success of the institution and its students, the time and cost investment may not be deemed worthwhile by the institution’s governing body. Institutions interested in accreditation are often challenged to find an accrediting agency with evaluation metrics suitable for their type of educational programs. It is also challenging to find an agency that conducts its reviews in a fair and equitable manner.
The COE Accreditation Process
At the time of this writing, 6 of the 26 colleges accredited by the COE were going through reaffirmation of accreditation, a process that occurs every 2 to 6 years. Although infrequent, reaffirmation is an exercise in logistics. During the process, each college hosts a team of impartial COE members from across the country who come to assess the institutions based on 10 established standards and more than 300 criteria. Interviews are conducted with faculty members, students, advisory board members and other parties to ensure a holistic and fair assessment. From admission requirements to placement to financial and physical resources, no stone is left unturned. COE coordinates every aspect of the visits to minimize interruptions and maximize efficiency. Carol Puryear, the Associate Vice Chancellor of TCAT who oversees accreditation, describes the process:
“It is very fair, thorough and quick. They have it down to a science. COE provides training for team members who will visit the institutions and for institutions themselves preparing for a visit. They give you the test so you will know what is going to be on it. It is your job to ensure you are ready to answer questions and present your materials in an easy-to-understand manner. It is a very good process: Time consuming, but well worth it.”
Open communication is key during such coordinated efforts, and TCAT is pleased with the availability of the staff and resources to address arising concerns and needs:
“Communication with COE is excellent. They are always there to help answer questions and share information, and they do so with a smile. They have a lot of helpful information on their website and provide easy accessibility to forms and deadlines. It is very easy to find what you need.”
TCAT’s programs are centered on workforce development so the colleges place emphasis on measuring outcomes. For the 2015-2016 academic year, the statewide completion rate at TCAT institutions was 83% and the placement rate was 86%, both well above national averages. Carol Puryear believes accreditation plays an instrumental role in maintaining these rates:
“Our institutions are very serious about accreditation, especially with the COE, because they accredit the most important thing: The success of the student. They do a phenomenal job of making sure we do what we say we do. Sometimes people aren’t aware of agencies like COE that really look at the outcomes and your ability to put people in the workforce.”
The true value of accreditation is the assurance to students and parents alike that the institutions deliver on the promise to educate the future workforce and provide them the tools they need to be successful in the evolving job market. The Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology are proven examples of just how invaluable accreditation is in achieving these remarkable results.