The Impact of Accreditation of Education on Libraries in the United States


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Lester J. Pourciau

International Library, Information and Analytical Center, Memphis, TN, USA


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Accreditation of all levels of education in the United States is systematically and routinely carried our for the purpose of insuring uniformity, consistency, and quality of educational practice, and to ensure to the general public that educational institutions meet established standards. In promulgated criteria for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the regional accrediting associations, there is identification of criteria for libraries. This paper will identify and discuss these criteria.

There are six regional, geographically based accrediting associations in the United States. Among these is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, (hereinafter referred to as SACS) based in Atlanta, Georgia. SACS is the recognized accrediting body for an eleven state region in the Southeastern United States. SACS is organized into three separate Commissions, the Commission on Elementary and Middle Schools, the Commission on Secondary and Middle Schools, and the Commission on Colleges. Links to information about each of these commissions and is available at

Of interest here are those criteria which elementary, middle, secondary schools and institutions of higher education must meet with regard to support of the libraries of these schools and institutions.

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Elementary, Middle, and Secondary Schools

Taken in ascending order of the progression of education, there are two commissions concerned with Elementary and Middle Schools, and with Secondary and Middle Schools. The reason for the inclusion of Middle Schools in both of these two Commissions is that education in the United States is organized in some cases at the local level such that a school might include grades one through six (elementary) or grades one through eight (elementary and middle). In other areas, organization might include the middle school years (seven and eight) with the Secondary School years. Although this writer has worked throughout the entirety of his career in higher education and has served on four different accreditation committees visiting universities, he has also had the opportunity to serve on a visiting accreditation committee for the review of a secondary school.

The Process and Protocol of Accreditation

Whether an individual school is undergoing initial review for its first accreditation or whether it is being reviewed for renewal or reaffirmation of accreditation, the policies, protocol, and process are similar. Among these is the requirement that the school which will undergo review prepare a self-study report well in advance of the visit by the visiting committee. This self-study report must speak to each of the criteria or standards promulgated by the particular SACS Commission and discuss those ways in which the school believes it meets or does not meet a particular criterion or standard. Upon completion of this self-study report, the school submits it to the Commission which then distributes it to the appointed visiting committee.

Appointment to a visiting committee is governed by several conditions. Among these is the requirement that a person serving on the committee as an evaluator not have been employed by the school to be visited for a specified period of time, not have been a candidate for employment by the school, not have been a compensated consultant to the school, and is not a graduate of the school. In general, the requirement is that members of the visiting committee not have any relationship with or connection to the school to be visited, and will not, within at least one year, assume any such relationship or connection.

The Commissions rely on the personal and professional integrity of the individual committee members and expect them to be sensitive to personal conflicts of interest in the review process. It assumes that individuals appointed to visiting committees will act accordingly.

Once the self-study is completed and sent to the appropriate SACS Commission, the Commission staff then appoints the visiting committee and makes arrangements for all appropriate information to be distributed to those persons agreeing to serve on a committee. These arrangements include information about travel logistics, information about reimbursement to committee members for expenses incurred during the process of

visiting the particular school, and identification of the membership of the committee.

Accreditation Standards

Each of the two SACS Commissions mentioned above maintains a listing of standards to which schools wishing initial accreditation or reaccreditation must adhere, and articulates each of these for several different categories of schools. Those categories listed on the link to secondary, middle, and unit schools speak to this particular category and, in addition, address and list standards for Vocational-Technical Institutions, and Special Purpose Schools. Those standards for the Commission on Elementary and Middle Schools are the more detailed on the SACS web site at the time of this writing. The categories of standards listed are Organizational Standards and include Continuous School Improvement, Beliefs and Mission, Governance and Finance, Leadership, Human Resources, Support Services for Student Learning, and Library/Media Services. In the group devoted to Instructional Standards are Instructional Design, Curriculum, Citizenship and Conduct, and Assessment.

Standards for Library/Media Services in Elementary, Middle, and Secondary Schools

As mentioned above, standards found at the link for Elementary and Middle Schools are the more detailed at the time of this writing and those speaking to library and media services will be identified here. Item 5.8 in the category of Human Resources states that Each librarian/media specialists has earned a bachelors degree in library/media from a regionally accredited or federal-or state-sanctioned institution and 12 semester hours of professional education as a part of, or in addition to, the degree or meets the legal qualifications of the state in which employed. Note: A teacher with a bachelors degree, qualified to teach in another area, may meet this standard by earning six semester hours each year in a planned program leading to qualifications as a librarian or media specialist.

Item 5.11 of this same category lists minimum personnel requirements for the Principal, Headmaster, or President, the Professional Administrative or Supervisory Assistants, the Library or Media Specialist, the Library Aide or Clerk, and the Secretaries or Clerks at a given school. Item 5.16 speaks to Student-Professional staff ratios as required according to the ages of children and includes mention of librarians.

In category 7, Library/Media Services, detailed standards are listed to which library and media centers must adhere if their parent schools wish initial accreditation or reaccreditation. The general, introductory statement in category 7 states that The school shall provide a comprehensive program of library/media services that is aligned with its beliefs, mission, and goals. Item 7.1 addresses the library or media centers collection and mandates that it include current technological formats in support of the schools mission and instructional program. Item 7.2 requires that the library/media centers collection of print and non-print material be current, comprehensive, and carefully selected in terms of the schools mission and instructional program. Item 7.3 is more detailed about the collection, calling for a minimum of 10 books per student or 1,500 books, whichever is greater. It further stipulates that no school is required to have more than 10,000 books. In addressing detail with regard to collection size, the standard allows books on order but not yet received to be counted as part of the overall requirement and stipulates that no more than five copies of any individual title may be counted so as to meet the requirements of this standard. It further is explicit in allowing books on CD-ROM to be counted in meeting the requirements of this standard. Item 7.4 calls for evidence demonstrating that all students and staff have regular and ready access to media services, materials, and equipment. The final standard in category 7 is 7.5, which requires that, in kindergarten and early childhood centers without a central library, each classroom have a media collection which includes a minimum of 10 books per student appropriate to the various developmental stages of young children. It points out that, in kindergarten and early childhood centers or schools serving only students under the age of seven, no central library/media center of librarian/media specialist is required.

Included in the link to the SACS Commission on Middle and Secondary Schools are a listing of standards to which schools must adhere although, as was stated above, these are not as detailed as are those for Elementary Schools. Nevertheless, they speak to a minimum collection size for library/media services of 2,000 usable volumes or at least 10 volumes for students, whichever is greater. They also call for all materials to be catalogued using a currently accepted system. Moving on through the standards is the stipulation that the library subscribe to a minimum of 35 periodicals annually and that the selection of these shall serve all grade levels. An additional requirement calls for library media personnel to collaborate with other professional staff of the school so as to ensure the best use of library resources. Some specificity is mentioned with regard to the library media materials collection, calling for the inclusion of electronic technological formats in support of the curriculum, e.g., on-line searches, CD-ROM software, and laser disks. Speaking to the need for some balance in the array of material included in the collection, one standard calls for a balance of instructional technology and the provision for maintenance and replacement of this technology. Moving on to more general requirements, the standard requires that the school have a policy and procedure for responding to challenged materials, and that the budget of the school include funds to provide for and to maintain library services and equipment to support the curriculum. Access to media services, materials, and equipment is explicitly stipulated in one standard as is the requirement that the school have a policy that addressed internet use.

Standards for Libraries in Institutions of Higher Education

The Commission on Colleges of SACS maintains a document, Criteria for Accreditation, [1] which articulates all of those standards reviewed and approved by representatives of each of the some 800 institutions which are members of the Commission on Colleges. These standards or, criteria, are continuously revised to reflect any changes which should affect the operation of institutions of higher education. Each member institution or candidate for membership in the Commission is classified according to its highest level of degree offered. The several levels identified and agreed upon are: Level I Institutions offering associate degrees (in the United States, this is commonly understood to be a two-year degree.); Level II institutions offering baccalaureate degrees; Level III institutions offering master's degrees; Level IV institutions offering master's and specialist's degrees; Level V institutions offering doctoral degrees in three or fewer major academic or professional disciplines; and, Level VI institutions offering doctoral degrees in four or more major academic or professional disciplines. The Criteria for Accreditation as formulated and published by the Commission on Colleges use, throughout the document, the word must which is interpreted and understood to mean that institutions are required to meet these specific criteria stipulated by this word. Statements which use the word, should, are advisory and are not explicit requirements for accreditation or reaffirmation of accreditation.

Categories of Accreditation Criteria

All of the criteria stipulated by the Commission on Colleges for accreditation of institutions of higher education are contained in six different sections or categories. The first of these sections is entitled Principles and Philosophy of Accreditation. In this section is reviewed an Institutional Commitment and Responsibilities in the Accreditation Process, the Application of the Criteria, Separately Accredited Units, Conditions of Eligibility, Initial Membership, and Representation of Status. In each of these categories, there are various must statements which stipulate criteria or standards to which an institution seeking initial accreditation or reaffirmation of accreditation must meet.

The second section of the stated Criteria speaks to Institutional Purpose and, the

must statements in this section speak to the requirement that an institution have a clearly defined statement of mission appropriate to collegiate education as well as to its own specific educational role. This statement must describe the institution and its characteristics. The institution also must demonstrate an official posture and practice which is consistent with its purpose statement. Additionally, various publications of the institution must accurately cite the statement of purpose. This second section is the most broadly articulated and the most philosophical of all of the sections.

Section three of the Criteria speak to Institutional Effectiveness. This concept is at the core of the Commission's philosophy of accreditation and is fundamental to institutional programs and operations. It underscores the entirety of the Criteria for Accreditation. This particular concept assumes that each member institution is engaged in an ongoing quest for quality and can demonstrate how it fulfills its stated purpose. More specifically,

it speaks to planning and evaluation of educational programs, the planning and evaluation of administrative and educational support services, and of institutional research.

Section IV, the Educational Program, articulates exactly how each member institution should focus its resources and energies on the education of students consistent with its purpose. It stipulates that effectiveness in all educational programs, delivery systems, and support structures should be the primary goal of every institution. It states that an effective institution of higher education demonstrates attention to curricular consistencies, pedagogical competence, student accomplishment, intellectual inquisitiveness, personal and professional development, ethical consciousness, academic freedom, faculty support, and an environment conducive to learning.

As the Criteria develop through the various sections, they become more detailed and more comprehensive. This is especially noticeable when one examines Section IV. It addresses the Undergraduate Program of an institution, speaking not only about the Undergraduate Program in some detail, but also, it is specific about admission to the undergraduate program, about the undergraduate curriculum and undergraduate curriculum completion requirements, the quality of undergraduate instruction, and the academic advising of undergraduate students. It goes on to discuss the graduate program of an institution, speaking about graduate admissions requirements, the graduate curriculum, the quality of graduate instruction, the advising of graduate students, and graduate program completion requirements.

Section IV speaks specifically about the need for accurate and timely information in those publications produced by the institution that describe programs, curriculum, and completion requirements. It then goes on to address Distance Learning Programs, specifically calling for institutions to demonstrate that these programs are of the same quality as are residence programs and achieve the same results as do residence programs.

Following the subject matter of Distance Learning Programs, Section IV then addresses Continuing Education, Outreach, and Service Programs which an institution offers. Covered under this topic are those programs which institutions have initiated to provide life-long learning opportunities to its surrounding population. Such programs may be for academic credit or may be non-credit in nature. In either case, they must be in keeping with the purpose of the institution.

Beyond criteria, which address program offerings and related factors, Section IV also addresses the topic of Student Records, specifying that all student records must be maintained in a confidential and permanent manner. Specifically, this particular criterion requires that institutions must publish policies which speak specifically to those circumstances under which student records might be released.

Section IV continues, speaking about faculty and the consistency and orderliness of the selection process for hiring faculty. It additionally addresses requirements for the academic and professional preparation of faculty for participation in associate, baccalaureate, and graduate programs, distance learning instructors, part-time faculty, and graduate teaching assistants. It is quite detailed in addressing each of these categories of instructional personnel and speaks further to faculty compensation, requirements associated with academic freedom and professional security, opportunities for professional growth, the role of faculty and its committees, teaching loads, and criteria and procedures for the evaluation of faculty.

Section IV continues, speaking of any consortial relationships in which an institution might be involved, requiring that the institution maintain a degree of control in any such relationship so that it does not depart from any of the criteria stipulated in any of the other sections of the total array of Criteria. It speaks in the same language about any contractual agreements in which the institution might be involved.

In brief summary, Section IV speaks of all characteristics of an institution's program. It

covers the curriculum in all of its facets and all considerations which might be made of its faculty, and of any agreements into which an institution become involved.

Because this paper will focus on Section V of the SACS Criteria, it will move from Section IV to Section VI and then return to Section V.

Section VI speaks to and addresses Administrative Processes, covering many facets of this broad topic. It begins by addressing the Organization and Administration of an institution, speaking of the need for the names of degrees awarded by an institution to be accurate, descriptive, and appropriate. It then goes on to speak of those needs associated with the governing board of an institution, speaking in particular about the duties and responsibilities of the board and of its members. Section VI also addresses the situation of any advisory groups or committees used by an institution. With regard to the topic of Official Policies of an institution, the Criteria call for these to be officially published and available. This section continues, speaking of the administrative organization of an institution. It then moves on to the topic of Institutional Advancement, that development and fund raising effort made by an institution. It stipulates that such efforts must be directly related to the purpose of the institution. With regard to the topic of fund raising, the Criteria very explicitly require that any fund raising efforts be directly related to the purpose of the institution. A major topic included in Section VI is that of Financial Resources and the language of the Criteria here speak most explicitly to financial resources, the organization for the administration of such resources, budget planning, budget control and the relationship of an institution to external budgetary control. It then addresses accounting, reporting, and auditing, stipulating strict standards to which these topics must adhere. Included in this topic of Administrative Processes is the topic of Purchasing and Inventory Control, that of Refund Policy, Cashiering, Investment Management, Risk Management and Insurance, and Auxiliary Enterprise. Still further under the general area of Section VI is the topic of physical Resources, including Space Management, Buildings, Grounds and Equipment Maintenance, Safety and Security, and the topic of a Facilities Master Plan. The two final subjects included in Section VI are those of Externally Funded Grants and Contracts and Related Corporate Entities. Both of these items speak to the need for any externally funded grants or related corporate entities to be such that they are clearly and distinctly related to the stated purpose of the institution.

Returning to Section V of the Criteria, one finds the topics of Library and Other Learning Resources, Instructional Support, Information Technology Resources, Student Development Services, and Intercollegiate Resources. Subtopics under that of Library and Other Learning Resources include Purpose and Scope, Services, Library Collections, Information Technology, Cooperative Agreements, Staff, and Library/Learning Resources for Distance Learning Activities.

Among the stipulated requirements indicated by the must statements are some that are most fundamental. Under the subtopic of Purpose and Scope, the text specifies that the library and other learning resources and services must be available to all faculty and enrolled students. It further stipulates that these resources must be evaluated on a regular basis and that they must be adequate to support the needs of users.

With regard to Services, the language of this subtopic call for an orientation program designed to orient new users to the library and Other Learning Resources. It further specifies that such services be made available for an adequate number of hours each week such that faculty and students have easy access to them. Included in the topic of Services are statements requiring that library collections be cataloged and organized in an orderly, easily accessible arrangement. Moving on, the Services subtopic language calls for adequacy of physical facilities. Next among the subtopics of Services is that of Library Collections with stated requirements that an institution must provide access to essential references and specialized program resources. It specifies sufficient access to the library collections and the requirement that these resources be well organized. Specific language calls for institutions offering graduate work to show evidence that their libraries have resources substantially beyond those required for baccalaureate programs. Further, there is found a requirement that librarians, teaching faculty and researchers share in the development of collections and that there be a published policy defining this involvement. The last specific stated requirement calls for the existence of a policy governing the selection of material to be included in the library collections, the elimination or removal of material from collections, and those procedures providing for the preservation, replacement or removal of deteriorating material in the collection.

The Process and Procedure of Accreditation

The accreditation review of institutions located in the geographical region encompassed by SACS takes place every ten years. Approximately a year or so before the visitation of a review committee selected and appointed by SACS, the institution which will undergo review begins what is known as an institutional self-study, during which it examines itself in much detail to determine how it meets and adheres to the published Criteria for accreditation. SACS provides a guide to assist institutions in this self-study. [2] This guide, or handbook, provides an introduction to and discussion of the accreditation process, the goals and objectives, and benefits of the Self-Study, and the expectations of the Commission on Colleges for the self-study. It then goes on to describe the self-study process in some detail so that the institution involved in the self-study will have a clear understanding of what it must do to prepare itself for an accreditation review. It provides some discussion of the peer review process which the institution will experience, speaking about the visiting committee, needed preparations for the visit of the committee, the appearance of the committee on campus, and needed tasks following the committee visit. There are several appendices which, again provide detail designed to assist the institution in conducting its self-study in a way so as to posture itself in the very best possible light.

Some six months or so before the planned visit of a committee which will review an institution's self-study document and examine the programs and organization of a particular campus to determine whether the institution does, in fact, meet accreditation Criteria, the central office of the Commission on Colleges identifies individuals from institutions which are similar to the one to be reviewed and invites these persons to serve on the committee. Any individual accepting an appointment as a member of a visiting review committee must assure, in writing, that she or she has no particular relationship with or connection to the institution to be visited, is not being considered for a position at the institution, and has not been for at least several years, in a position at the institution.

There is a guide for use by individuals to serve on visiting committees. [3] This guide, or handbook as it is termed, provides an overview of the accreditation process, necessary preparations for the visit, the details of the visit, and the exit report which must be prepared and approved before the committee members leave the particular campus being reviewed. It gives several suggestions about the conduct of the review process and speaks about guidelines for the application of each of the elements of the Criteria outlined above.

The Application of Criteria and the Exit Report

Just as the word, must in the language of the Criteria, is a mandate which an institution must follow for accreditation purposes, the language of the report prepared by the review committee also uses some very specific language. When a member of the visiting review committee finds some area in which the institution is not in compliance with the Criteria, the language used to make reference to the need for compliance uses either the word, recommendation, or suggestion. In the context of the committee report, the word, recommendation is understood to mean that the institution is not in compliance and must take action to bring itself into compliance. The word, suggestion, is somewhat more lenient and does not mandate action but, as the ordinary meaning of the word conveys, it is merely a suggestion that some corrective action be taken.

This writer has served on five different SACS visiting committees for the purpose of reviewing library operations and other instructional support. Four of these committees visited institutions of higher education. The fifth one was a committee reviewing a secondary school. By way of clarifying and providing further explanation of the matter of language of the visiting committee's exit report, what follows is the actual text prepared by this writer during the review process at one institution of higher education. The name of the institution will not be given so as to protect the anonymity of the particular institution.


5.1 Library and other learning resources

Based on the documentation provided and interviews with several persons, the Committee finds that ********** is in compliance with Section 5.1 of the Commission of Colleges 1998 Criteria for Accreditation.

It should be noted, however, that several concerns are raised by the stated wishes of the University Administration to increase the number of graduate programs and, particularly, to implement additional doctoral programs. Library collections as they are currently being acquired and built are insufficient to support activities typically associated with such program activity. Further, the level of staffing for the Library is marginal at best. Additionally, the physical facilities housing the main Library will be insufficient to house collections and services typically associated with doctoral degree granting institutions.

Therefore, the Committee suggests that a careful and comparative review

be conducted investigating funding, staffing, and space allocation norms

associated with doctoral granting institutions as an ongoing activity associated

with all planning efforts directed toward the establishment of additional graduate


Additionally, based on documentation provided and on interviews with several persons, there is apparently some need for the library to enhance and to improve upon its efforts to apprise faculty of resources available in the library for the support of their instructional and research efforts.

Therefore, the Committee suggests that the library develop a comprehensive

plan to enhance and to expand communication with faculty and with students

about resources available in the Library.

5.2 Instructional Support

Based on the documentation provided and on interviews with several persons , including students, the committee finds that ********** is in compliance with Section 5.2 of the Commission on Colleges 1998 Criteria for Accreditation.


This paper has attempted to outline the process and procedure of accreditation of education in the geographical region of the United States included in and supervised by SACS. It has provided a brief discussion of the Criteria employed for purposes of accreditation and has discussed somewhat more in detail those items which speak to libraries. The text of the Criteria can be viewed at and at the links to the Commissions. There can really be no question that the policy of accreditation and the process outlined here is valid, fair, objective, and one which assures that institutions meet standards of quality.


  1. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges. 1998 Criteria for Accreditation. 11th ed. Decatur, Georgia. SACS Commission on Colleges, c2000.
  2. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges. Handbook for Institutional Self-Study. Decatur, Georgia. SACS Commission on Colleges, 1994.
  3. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges. Handbook for Peer Evaluators. Decatur, Georgia. SACS Commission on Colleges, 1991 and 1993.