All About Accreditation

December 9, 2008 · by Andrea Rutledge

The history of accreditation and why it’s essential to an architect’s education.

The history of accreditation and why it’s essential to an architect’s education.

The National Architectural Accrediting Board Inc. is the only agency recognized by registration boards in the United States to accredit professional degree programs in architecture. Because most U.S. registration boards require an applicant for licensure to have earned a NAAB-accredited degree, obtaining such a credential is an essential first step for gaining access to the licensed practice of architecture.

Accreditation Overview

Generally speaking, accreditation is a voluntary quality assurance process under which services and operations are evaluated by a third party against a set of standards set by the third party with input and collaboration from peers in the field. In the United States, accreditation of postsecondary institutions originated almost a century ago; it is voluntarily sought by colleges and universities and is conferred by non-governmental bodies. Today, voluntary accreditation is distinguished by five components:

• It is provided through private agencies.

• It requires a significant degree of self-evaluation by the institution or program, the results of which are summarized in a report to the agency.

• A team of evaluators conducts a visit to the institution.

• Recommendations or judgments about accreditation are made by expert and trained peers.

• Institutions have the opportunity to respond to most steps in the process.

The U.S. model for accreditation is based on the values of independent decision-making by institutions, the ability of institutions to develop and deliver postsecondary education within the context of the institution, the core tenants of academic freedom, and respect for diversity of thought, pedagogy, and methodology.

In institutional accreditation, the accrediting body evaluates an entire organization and accredits it as a whole (e.g., Northwestern University). Six regional agencies provide accreditation of postsecondary institutions in the United States. Successful accreditation by a regional accrediting agency is critical for institutions seeking federal assistance in almost any form, including student financial aid.

Specialized accreditation evaluates particular units, schools, or degree programs within an institution (e.g., the University of Virginia School of Law or Arizona State University’s Master of Architecture degree program). Many specialized accrediting organizations are associated with national professional associations and state registration or licensing (e.g., architecture or law).

In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed and the president signed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which reauthorized the Higher Education Act. This act is a comprehensive bill, first approved in the 1960s, that authorizes federal activity relative to postsecondary education and includes important provisions for student financial aid and accreditation. During the reauthorization, accrediting organizations were harshly criticized for not holding institutions accountable for student achievement. This critique was leveled largely at the regional accrediting bodies, and attempts were made to include provisions in the bill that could have regulated accreditation activities. These attempts were not successful. Non-governmental agencies retain their independent authority for accreditation in the United States; nevertheless, Congressional and public expectations remain high for accreditation to serve as a key mechanism for ensuring quality and student success.

Accreditation in Architecture Education

The first step leading to architectural accreditation was taken in Illinois, where the first legislation regulating architectural practice was enacted in 1897. By 1902, the Illinois Board of Examiners and Regulators of Architects had established a rule restricting access to the examination to graduates of the state’s approved four-year architecture curriculum. In 1903, the board expanded this policy to include graduates from Cornell, Columbia, and Harvard universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The first attempt to establish national standards came with the founding of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture in 1912 and its adoption two years later of a set of “standard minima” that schools were required to meet in order to become members of ACSA. From 1914-1932, ACSA membership was equivalent to accreditation. In 1932, the ACSA abandoned the standard minima and in 1940 ACSA, the American Institute of Architects, and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards established the NAAB, giving it authority to accredit schools of architecture nationally. The founding agreement of 1940 also announced the intention to create an integrated system of architectural education that would still be reflective of the values of voluntary accreditation and would allow schools with varying resources and circumstances to develop according to their particular needs and purposes.

Today, the NAAB accredits three professional degree programs: Bachelor of Architecture (B. Arch.), Master of Architecture (M. Arch.), and Doctor of Architecture (D. Arch.). In keeping with best practices in accreditation, the NAAB’s accreditation system for professional degree programs includes all five components described above:

• The NAAB is a private, non-governmental entity.

• Degree programs are required to submit an Architecture Program Report, which serves as the self-assessment.

• This report is reviewed, and the program is visited by an NAAB team composed of trained peers and experts that concludes with a recommendation as to the term of accreditation. The visiting team is composed of at least four people, representing the four organizations that collectively form the NAAB: a professional (AIA), an educator (ACSA), a volunteer from a regulatory board (NCARB), and a student (the American Institute of Architecture Students). The NAAB is one of the few accrediting boards that includes students on visiting teams.

• The decision regarding the term of accreditation is made by the NAAB Board of Directors.

• The program has opportunities to respond to each step in the process.

Accreditation in architecture education is unique in that the NAAB expects programs to demonstrate through the presentation of student work that all graduates of a particular degree program possess the knowledge and skills defined by the 34 student performance criteria set out in Condition 13 of the 2004 NAAB Conditions for Accreditation. Known as the “SPCs,” these 34 criteria are considered to represent the minimum education standard for someone seeking to become a licensed professional.

That said, the NAAB does not propose how an institution is to organize its curriculum, with two exceptions:

• The NAAB has set a minimum for the total number of credits to be earned for each professional degree accredited by the NAAB.

• A program’s curriculum is required to include professional studies, general studies, and electives.

The NAAB asks each program to describe its history and mission, as well as that of the institution, and then to demonstrate how a professional degree program is delivered in that context. The intent is to allow each program to deliver a professional education within the unique context of the institution while still ensuring that SPCs are met. Then, rather than relying on syllabi or course descriptions, the NAAB relies on the evidence of the students’ own work to make the determination as to whether the program is achieving its stated goals for professional education.

If the work demonstrates, for example, that students at City College of the City University of New York have the ability to speak and write effectively on the basis of term papers submitted in an architectural history course while the students at Iowa State University demonstrate their ability by writing case studies for a course in professional practice, it does not matter to the NAAB. What matters is that the students have achieved the “ability to read, write, listen, and speak effectively,” as specified by the SPCs.

In addition to SPCs, the NAAB expects the program (and by extension the institution) to demonstrate that it meets other conditions by providing the following:

• Appropriate financial, human, physical, and information resources to support a professional degree program in architecture.

• A system for self-assessment and evaluation of the program’s progress against its mission or goals.

• A positive and respectful learning environment that encourages the fundamental values of optimism, respect, sharing, engagement, and innovation between and among the members of its faculty, student body, administration, and staff.

• An educational environment in which each person is equitably able to learn, teach, and work irrespective of race, ethnicity, creed, national origin, gender, age, physical ability, or sexual orientation. In addition, the institution must have a clear policy on diversity that is communicated to current and prospective faculty, students, and staff and that is reflected in the distribution of the program’s human, physical, and financial resources.

• Equitable opportunities for faculty, staff, and students to participate in program governance.

• Opportunities for all faculty and staff to pursue professional development that contributes to program improvement.

Finally, the accredited degree program must be, or be part of, an institution accredited by one of the six regional institutional accrediting agencies for higher education. Equally important, the accredited degree program must have a measure of autonomy that is comparable to that afforded other professional degree programs in the institution.

Throughout the process, the NAAB recognizes the rights and responsibilities of the educational institutions that offer professional degrees in architecture as defined and governed by the laws of the individual states and jurisdictions. Further, the NAAB recognizes the institutional rights and responsibilities of the faculty to explore fundamental and innovative educational concepts, scholarship, research, methods, and technologies that exceed the minimum student performance criteria and that may lead to even higher standards of performance by students than the standards contained within the SPCs.

2008 Accreditation Review Conference

The 2004 Conditions for Accreditation, currently in effect, were initially developed in 1997 and published in 1998. They were republished in 2004 following a formalized process of validation in 2000 and again in 2003. During the 2003 validation process, the NAAB Board agreed to extend the review period to five years, thus the next review period is currently underway. As this article is being written, the NAAB and its partners, the AIA, AIAS, ACSA, and NCARB, are in the final stages of review, evaluation, and development for the next iteration of those conditions. Throughout the past 18 months, the process has emphasized inter-collateral collaboration and an overt effort to consider the broadest range of perspectives possible. The overarching desire is to maximize NAAB’s effectiveness in delivering on its purpose and to direct the review and revision of the Conditions for Accreditation toward establishing an accreditation model that will be valid well into this century.

This article appears in print as the Accreditation Review Conference, the “Final Crit,” is underway. At this penultimate stage in the process, leaders from AIA, AIAS, ACSA, NCARB, the Canadian Architectural Certification Board, and the National Organization for Minority Architects, as well as the guests who participated in an initial “First Crit” held in June, will critique the final edition of a new proposed model for accreditation; contribute to the further development and refinement of the conditions for accreditation, including the SPCs; and consider the means by which the NAAB will integrate continuous improvement into the review process. The interim steps leading to the ARC, including reports and papers from inter-collateral task groups and others, are fully documented on the NAAB’s Web site at www.naab.org. (Click on Accreditation and follow the links for the 2008 Accreditation Review Conference.)

The NAAB 2009 Conditions for Accreditation and the accompanying procedures will go into effect in 2010 and will affect programs with visits scheduled for 2011.

Final Thoughts

In today’s environment of heightened expectations and continued scrutiny by Congress and others, the NAAB continues to be a leader in specialized accreditation. This leadership role can be expected to continue through the next iteration of the Conditions for Accreditation. The five core elements of voluntary accreditation will remain, although there are likely to be changes to the types of information required in Architecture Program Reports, and it is very likely the SPCs will be revised to address sustainability, civic engagement, and diversity. Nevertheless, the core elements of NAAB’s process will remain the same: programs will be required not only to describe their professional degree programs within the context of their institutions but also to demonstrate that students are learning at proscribed levels of achievement.

Andrea S. Rutledge is executive director of the National Architectural Accrediting Board Inc. Prior to assuming her role at the NAAB, Rutledge was the managing director of Alliances at the American Institute of Architects. Rutledge is a Certified Association Executive and earned an M.F.A from The Catholic University of America and a B.A., magna cum laude, from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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