Mapping Accessibility onto Existing Accreditation Standards and Criteria

Promoting system-wide web accessibility through the accreditation process does not necessarily mean that new standards or criteria are required. The foundation for web accessibility is already present in the existing guidelines of the regional accreditation agencies. An analysis of the Principles, Standards and Criteria of the six regional accreditors that oversee higher education in the United States revealed multiple areas of support for including web accessibility as part of the accreditation evaluation. The following is a listing of the regional accreditors and the documents reviewed:

While there is no single method for inculcating web accessibility into the accreditation process, the first step is to review the standards or criteria with an eye to accessibility positive language. This review can be done by reviewing how accessibility maps onto the principles in the order they appear in the principles document or by focusing on specific themes.

The following are some common themes that lend themselves to the inclusion of web accessibility along with selected examples from the regional accrediting agencies. Please keep in mind that this list is only an example of potential themes and individual institutions and agencies will want to develop themes that are personalized to their specific mission and needs.

Theme: Institutional Mission

Most accreditation bodies have a standard or criterion for an institution's mission and goals. Within these criteria, identifying and supporting their constituents and student bodies is a common element.

In 2008, Project GOALS conducted an evaluation of 100 Higher Education Institutions (two from each state). Of those 100 institutions, all of whom had their Mission Statements available online, 86 used language that would support a web accessibility policy. While the language varied, the implication was clear; diversity and attention to all students' needs are stated primary goals of these institutions.

NEASC - 1.1   The mission of the institution defines its distinctive character, addresses the needs of society and identifies the students the institution seeks to serve, and reflects both the institution's traditions and its vision for the future.   The institution's mission provides the basis upon which the institution identifies its priorities, plans its future and evaluates its endeavors; it provides a basis for the evaluation of the institution against the Commission's Standards.

NEASC -6.10  The institution systematically identifies the characteristics and learning needs of its student population and then makes provision for responding to them. The institution's student services are guided by a philosophy that reflects the institution's mission and special character, is circulated widely and reviewed periodically, and provides the basis on which services to students can be evaluated. 

HLC - Core Component 1b In its mission documents, the organization recognizes the diversity of its learners, other constituencies, and the greater society it serves.

WASC - Standard 1 Defining Institutional Purposes and Ensuring Educational Objectives. The institution defines its purposes and establishes educational objectives aligned with its purposes and character. It has a clear and conscious sense of its essential values and character, its distinctive elements, its place in the higher education community, and its relationship to society at large. Through its purposes and educational objectives, the institution dedicates itself to higher learning, the search for truth, and the dissemination of knowledge. The institution functions with integrity and autonomy.

Theme: Strategic Planning

An institution must be sustainable in order to survive. If a university does not have a strategic plan for the future, it will not be able to keep up with the quickly changing face of education. This is especially true for the technologies which are advancing at an exponential rate. The internet, for example has evolved toward a more stringent adherence to standards. However, many of these standards also help to make the web more accessible, not only to persons with disabilities but also to a growing constituent of students and faculty who employ mobile technologies as educational tools. Incorporation of W3C and WCAG standards into an institution's strategic planning can help them stay relevant in an evolving technological world.

As technology evolves, so do the laws surrounding it, Institutions must remain abreast of the changes in store for accessibility in education. When planning for the future, many institutions will find that it is far more economical to plan for web accessibility than to face lawsuits and damages on top of finding themselves having to reengineer websites for accessibility after the fact.

NEASC - 2.3  The institution plans beyond a short-term horizon, including strategic planning that involves realistic analyses of internal and external opportunities and constraints.  It plans for and responds to financial and other contingencies, establishes feasible priorities, and develops a realistic course of action to achieve identified objectives.  Institutional decision-making, particularly the allocation of resources, is consistent with planning priorities.

HLC - Core Component 2a The organization realistically prepares for a future shaped by multiple societal and economic trends.

WASC - 4.2 Planning processes at the institution define and, to the extent possible, align academic, personnel, fiscal, physical, and technological needs with the strategic objectives and priorities of the institution.

WASC - 4.6 Leadership at all levels is committed to improvement based on the results of the inquiry, evaluation and assessment that is used throughout the institution. The faculty takes responsibility for evaluating the effectiveness of the teaching and learning process and uses the results for improvement. Assessments of the campus environment in support of academic and co-curricular objectives are also undertaken and used.

Theme: Quality

A central tenant of a quality education is quality. However, it is not enough that the information be good, it also must be presented in a way that students can access and understand. Universally designed materials provide value added quality to education. Just as curb cuts in sidewalks help mothers in strollers, people pulling suitcases and others besides persons with disabilities, accessibly designed materials provide benefits for a wide variety of students. Multi-modal presentations allow students with different learning styles to learn in their preferred methods, captions allow students for whom English is a second language to enhance comprehension of materials, and alt tags and descriptions provide improved information for students with older computers.

Natively accessible materials also enhance the quality of the overall educational experience for students with disabilities, allowing them to be full and active participants in any course which has an online component.

NEASC - 4.3 Each educational program demonstrates coherence through its goals, structure, and content; policies and procedures for admission and retention; instructional methods and procedures; and the nature, quality, and extent of student learning and achievement. The institution offering multiple academic programs ensures that all programs meet or exceed the basic quality standards of the institution and that there is a reasonable consistency in quality among them. The institution provides sufficient resources to sustain and improve its academic programs. 

NEASC - 4.55 The institution's principal evaluation focus is the quality, integrity, and effectiveness of its academic programs. Evaluation endeavors and systematic assessment are demonstrably effective in the improvement of academic offerings and student learning.

HLC - Core Component 3b The organization values and supports effective teaching.

NWCCU - 2.D.1 Consistent with the nature of its educational programs and methods of delivery, the institution creates effective learning environments with appropriate programs and services to support student learning needs.

SACSCOC - 3.4.5 The institution publishes academic policies that adhere to principles of good educational practice. These policies are disseminated to students, faculty, and other interested parties through publications that accurately represent the programs and services of the institution. (Academic policies)

Theme: Technology

Through technology, universal design provides students with disabilities equitable access to learning. It can also provide enhanced learning for other groups such as those for whom English is a second language, prefer multi-modal learning or who are working on older equipment.

NEASC- 4.7  The institution ensures that students use information resources and information technology as an integral part of their education. The institution provides appropriate orientation and training for use of these resources, as well as instruction and support in information literacy and information technology appropriate to the degree level and field of study.  (See also 7.10)

WASC -3.7 The institution's information technology resources are sufficiently coordinated and supported to fulfill its educational purposes and to provide key academic and administrative functions.

SACSCOC - 3.4.12 The institution's use of technology enhances student learning and is appropriate for meeting the objectives of its programs. Students have access to and training in the use of technology. (Technology use)

Theme: Library and Information Resources

The old notion of the staid librarian lost in the Dewey decimal system has changed.  The technological revolution has required university librarians to become experts in digital media and electronic resources as well as the traditional book and paper mediums.  Today's libraries must provide access to all students regardless of location, technology medium, or disability.       

NEASC - 4.31 The institution offers required and elective courses as described in publicly available print and electronic formats with sufficient availability to provide students with the opportunity to graduate within the published program length.

NEASC - 7.7 The institution ensures appropriate access to library and information resources and services for all students regardless of program location or mode of delivery. 

NEASC 7.8 The institution ensures that students have available and are appropriately directed to sources of information appropriate to support and enrich their academic work.

NEASC 7.9  The institution demonstrates that students use information resources and technology as an integral part of their education, attaining levels of proficiency appropriate to their degree and subject or professional field of study.

NEASC - 8.6 The institution's physical and electronic environments provide an atmosphere conducive to study and research.

MSC - Standard 3: Institutional Resources The human, financial, technical, facilities, and other resources necessary to achieve an institution's mission and goals are available and accessible. In the context of the institution's mission, the effective and efficient uses of the institution's resources are analyzed as part of ongoing outcomes assessment.

NWCCU - 2.A.13 Policies regarding access to and use of library and information resources- regardless of format, location, and delivery method- are documented, published, and enforced.

NWCCU - 2.E.1 Consistent with its mission and core themes, the institution holds or provides access to library and information resources with an appropriate level of currency, depth, and breadth to support the institution's mission, core themes, programs, and services, wherever offered and however delivered.

NWCCU - 2.E.3 Consistent with its mission and core themes, the institution provides appropriate instruction and support for students, faculty, staff, administrators, and others (as appropriate) to enhance their efficiency and effectiveness in obtaining, evaluating, and using library and information resources that support its programs and services, wherever offered and however delivered.

WASC -3.6 The institution holds, or provides access to, information resources sufficient in scope, quality, currency, and kind to support its academic offerings and the scholarship of its members. These information resources, services and facilities are consistent with the institution's educational objectives and are aligned with student learning outcomes. For both on-campus students and students enrolled at a distance, physical and information resources, services, and information technology facilities are sufficient in scope and kind to support and maintain the level and kind of education offered.

SACSCOC - 2.9 The institution, through ownership or formal arrangements or agreements, provides and supports student and faculty access and user privileges to adequate library collections and services and to other learning/information resources consistent with the degrees offered. Collections, resources, and services are sufficient to support all its educational, research, and public service programs. (Learning Resources and Services)

Theme: Distance Education

Distance education is growing at an accelerated rate. The number of students taking online courses is currently estimated at over 12 million and is expected to rise to over 22 million by 2014 (Nagel, 2009). Distance education can be of great value to students with disabilities, allowing them a measure of freedom and independence that was unavailable to them in the past. However, in order to take advantage of Distance Education, the materials must be made accessible. An inaccessible website not only negates a student's independence, it can also make it impossible for the student to participate in higher education.

NEASC - 4.40 Courses and programs offered for credit off campus, through distance or correspondence education, or through continuing education, evening or week-end divisions are consistent with the educational objectives of the institution. Such activities are integral parts of the institution and maintain the same academic standards as courses and programs offered on campus. They receive sufficient support for instructional and other needs. Students have ready access to and support in using appropriate learning resources. The institution maintains direct and sole responsibility for the academic quality of all aspects of all programs and assures adequate resources to maintain quality. (See also 3.10)

SACSCOC - Application of Requirements The Commission on Colleges bases its accreditation of degree-granting higher education institutions and entities on requirements in the Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement. These requirements apply to all institutional programs and services, wherever located or however delivered. This includes programs offered through distance and correspondence education, off-campus sites, and branch campuses. Consequently, when preparing documents for the Commission demonstrating compliance with the Principles of Accreditation, an institution must include these programs in its "Institutional Summary Form Prepared for Commission Reviews" and address these programs in its analysis and documentation of compliance. (See Commission policy "Distance and Correspondence Education.")

Theme: Equity and Serving the Needs of All

Adequate and equitable services are required to promote admission, retention and graduation for all students. This includes providing the resources necessary for students with special needs to succeed without being isolated or exempted from activities because they are not natively accessible. This is especially true of distance students and those taking mixed or online courses, as inaccessible material can negatively affect their ability to participate and succeed in the academic environment

NEASC - 3.9 In accordance with established institutional mechanisms and procedures, the chief executive officer and the administration consult with faculty, students, other administrators and staff, and are appropriately responsive to their concerns, needs, and initiatives.  The institution's internal governance provides for the appropriate participation of its constituencies, promotes communications, and effectively advances the quality of the institution.

NEASC - 6.1  Consistent with its mission, the institution sets and achieves realistic goals to enroll a student body that is broadly representative of the population the institution wishes to serve and addresses its own goals for the achievement of diversity among its students.

NEASC - 6.2  The institution has an orderly and ethical program of admission that complies with the requirements of legislation concerning equality of educational opportunity.  Its admission and retention policies and procedures are clear, consistent with its mission and purposes, and available to all students and prospective students electronically and through other appropriate publications.

NEASC - 6.5  The institution demonstrates its ability to admit students who can be successful in the institution's academic program, including specifically recruited populations. It ensures a systematic approach to providing accessible and effective programs and services designed to provide opportunities for enrolled students to be successful in achieving their academic goals. The institution provides students with information and guidance regarding opportunities and experiences that may help ensure their academic success.

HLC - Core Component 3c The organization creates effective learning environments.

  • The organization provides an environment that supports all learners and respects the diversity they bring.

HLC - Core Component 5b The organization has the capacity and the commitment to engage with its identified constituencies and communities.

HLC - Core Component 5c The organization demonstrates its responsiveness to those constituencies that depend on it for service.

NWCCU - 2.A.15 Policies and procedures regarding students' rights and responsibilities- including academic honesty, appeals, grievances, and accommodations for persons with disabilities- are clearly stated, readily available, and administered in a fair and consistent manner.

NWCCU - 2.A.18 The institution maintains and publishes its human resources policies and procedures and regularly reviews them to ensure they are consistent, fair, and equitably applied to its employees and students.

WASC - 1.5 Consistent with its purposes and character, the institution demonstrates an appropriate response to the increasing diversity in society through its policies, its educational and co-curricular programs, and its administrative and organizational practices.

Theme: Student Services / Student Needs / Student Success

Students are arguably the most important resource for any college or university. Therefore, serving those students must be a priority. Furthermore, there needs to be equity for all students. In adhering to a non-discrimination policy, institutions must provide adequate and equitable services for all of their students, including students with disabilities.

NEASC - 5.16 Instructional techniques and delivery systems, including technology, are compatible with and serve to further the mission and purposes of the institution as well as the learning goals of academic programs and objectives of individual courses. Methods of instruction are appropriate to the students' capabilities and learning needs. Scholarly and creative achievement by students is encouraged and appropriately assessed. 

NEASC - STANDARD SIX: STUDENTS - Consistent with its mission, the institution defines the characteristics of the students it seeks to serve and provides an environment that fosters the intellectual and personal development of its students. It recruits, admits, enrolls, and endeavors to ensure the success of its students, offering the resources and services that provide them the opportunity to achieve the goals of their program as specified in institutional publications. The institution's interactions with students and prospective students are characterized by integrity.

NEASC - 6.3 Standards for admission ensure that student qualifications and expectations are compatible with institutional objectives. Individuals admitted demonstrate through their intellectual and personal qualifications a reasonable potential for success in the programs to which they are admitted. If the institution recruits and admits individuals with identified needs that must be addressed to assure their likely academic success, it applies appropriate mechanisms to address those needs so as to provide reasonable opportunities for that success. Such mechanisms receive sufficient support and are adequate to the needs of those admitted. The institution endeavors to integrate specifically recruited populations into the larger student body and to assure that they have comparable academic experiences.

HLC - Core Component 4c The organization assesses the usefulness of its curricula to students who will live and work in a global, diverse, and technological society.

HLC - Criterion Statement 5 As called for by its mission, the organization identifies its constituencies and serves them in ways both value.

MSC - Standard 9: Student Support Services - The institution provides student support services reasonably necessary to enable each student to achieve the institution's goals for students.

WASC - 2.10 The institution collects and analyzes student data, disaggregated by demographic categories and areas of study. It tracks achievement, satisfaction, and campus climate to support student success. The institution regularly identifies the characteristics of its students and assesses their preparation, needs, and experiences.

NEASC - 6.11  The institution offers an array of student services appropriate to its mission and the needs and goals of its students, recognizing the variations in services that are appropriate at the main campus, at off-campus locations, and for programs delivered electronically as well as the differences in circumstances and goals of students pursuing degrees.  In all cases, the institution provides academic support services appropriate to the student body.  The institution's faculty and professional staff collectively have sufficient interaction with students outside of class to promote students' academic achievement and provide academic and career guidance.  In providing services, in accordance with its mission and purposes, the institution adheres to both the spirit and intent of equal opportunity and its own goals for diversity.  (See also 5.19, 7.7, 7.8, 8.3, and 11.8)

NEASC - 10.9  The institution publishes a description of the size and characteristics of the student body, the campus setting, the availability of academic and other support services, the range of co-curricular and non-academic opportunities available to students; and those institutional learning and physical resources from which a student can reasonably be expected to benefit

HLC - Standard 8: Student Admissions and Retention - The institution seeks to admit students whose interests, goals, and abilities are congruent with its mission and seeks to retain them through the pursuit of the students' educational goals.

WASC - 2.13 Student support services, including financial aid, registration, advising, career counseling, computer labs, and library and information services, are designed to meet the needs of the specific types of students that the institution serves and the curricula it offers.

Theme: Ethics and Integrity

A strong sense of Ethics and Integrity are essential requirements for all of the accreditation bodies. Included within these standards is the promotion and valuation of diversity and non-discrimination.

While there are a number of legal, technical and economic reasons to ensure that an institution's websites and courses are accessible, there is one basic unassailable argument for accessible design: It's the right thing to do. One of the basic precepts of the accreditation process is adherence to a set of ethical guidelines. The integrity of an institution can be heavily weighed by the way they treat their constituents, this includes treating students with disabilities as full and valuable members of the academic society. This is not possible when students are segregated by their inability to access the same materials as their peers.

NEASC - 11.5 The institution adheres to non-discriminatory policies and practices in recruitment, admissions, employment, evaluation, disciplinary action, and advancement. It fosters an atmosphere within the institutional community that respects and supports people of diverse characteristics and backgrounds.

HLC - Core Component 1e The organization upholds and protects its integrity.

  • The organization consistently implements clear and fair policies regarding the rights and responsibilities of each of its internal constituencies.

MSC - Standard 6: Integrity - In the conduct of its programs and activities involving the public and the constituencies it serves, the institution demonstrates adherence to ethical standards and its own stated policies, providing support for academic and intellectual freedom.

NWCCU - 2.A.22 The institution advocates, subscribes to, and exemplifies high ethical standards in managing and operating the institution, including its dealings with the public, the Commission, and external organizations, and in the fair and equitable treatment of students, faculty, administrators, staff, and other constituencies. It ensures complaints and grievances are addressed in a fair and timely manner.

WASC - 1.8 The institution exhibits integrity in its operations, as demonstrated by the implementation of appropriate policies, sound business practices, timely and fair responses to complaints and grievances, and regular evaluation of its performance in these areas.

Theme: Risk Management

In these tight financial times, it is crucial that institutions do everything possible to protect their financial resources. The number of lawsuits and legal complaints by advocate groups and students with disabilities is growing and institutions that are not addressing accessibility do so at the risk of expensive litigation.

NWCCU - 2.F.1 The institution demonstrates financial stability with sufficient cash flow and reserves to support its programs and services. Financial planning reflects available funds, realistic development of financial resources, and appropriate risk management to ensure short-term solvency and anticipate long-term obligations, including payment of future liabilities.

NEASC 9.7 - The institution ensures the integrity of its finances through prudent financial management and organization, a well-organized budget process, appropriate internal control mechanisms, risk assessment, and timely financial reporting to internal and external constituency groups, providing a basis for sound financial decision-making.

As you can see, much of what makes web accessibility important is already inherent in the standards and guidelines of the major accrediting bodies for Higher Education.  By promoting accessible websites and courses, regional accrediting agencies can provide guidance for equitable and quality education to all of their constituents as well as emphasizing the importance of diversity and non-discrimination in higher education.