You might have seen some news stories lately that are talking about a new model that the University of Maine System is considering for its future called Unified Accreditation. You could most likely read those articles and news stories to learn more about this new topic that is currently prevalent in our university. But at the end of the day, what remains memorable are just big words and confusing sentences about a topic that has proven to be really difficult to explain and deal with.
What is Unified Accreditation?
According to the “Summary of Process Considerations and Framework for Pursuing Unified Accreditation” that was presented by the University of Maine System Chancellor Dannel P. Malloy at the Board of Trustees meeting this past November, the University of Maine System is composed of seven unique universities (UMaine, USM, UMA, UMF, UMFK, UMPI, UMM). These independent universities are not separate legal institutions. For example, no university can sign contracts or own property by itself without the approval of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees. Each campus every 4-5 years has to go through an accreditation process by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE). When this accreditation process takes place, NECHE accredits each university separately, as its very own separate accredited institution, and each campus has to go through the same process in order to receive its accreditation. This has proven to be both challenging for the system, but also a great obstacle for both students, faculty and for the accomplishment of the system’s future goals. With the proposal of a Unified Accreditation, the system is hoping to unify each UMS campus separate accreditation into one statewide institutional accreditation covering all UMS universities. It will furthermore mean that the currently separate NECHE accreditations will be joined together at the system level, with the University of Maine System recognized by NECHE and the U.S. Department of Education as one accredited institution made up of the current seven UMS universities.
But what does that mean for students? And does it benefit us?
The recent few years have been very interesting and at the same time frustrating among UMPI students when it comes to credits, financial aid and accessing resources from the rest of the University of Maine campuses. There have been plenty of student stories that make clear the frustration and difficulty that students are having while trying to complete their education in our institution. That frustration is what partially drove the trustees to consider this issue and finally (this idea was first introduced in 1986) to create a new pathway to answer these issues. As a student, you might have noticed that for small campuses such as ours, Fort Kent orMachias, the availability of getting courses is becoming more challenging, while certain majors in some instances cannot complete some of the requirements for graduation because the courses are not available anymore in the home campus. When this happens, students have to enroll at another UMS institution to fulfil their course needs. When they enroll in a course from another University of Maine System campus–for example USM or UMA–these credits come in as transfer credits, which means that students might lose financial aid at their home campus because of the limit of home credits a student has to take to be considered full time. On the other hand, these transfer credits don’t count for Dean’s List and for GPA on the home campus. There have been instances where students did not make Dean’s List because of that.
In extreme cases, students have had to leave the campus residence halls because they took more transfer courses from another UMS institution. UMPI senior Destiny Wetherell faced some of these issues last year, when she had to leave the campus residence halls because she had to take more courses from another UMS institution that were not being offered at UMPI but were required if she wanted to get her degree. This made her not qualify for financial aid here at her home campus. “It is frustrating to know that I was allotted an amount that would have been enough to live on campus here at UMPI, but I had required courses for my degree that were not being offered for a number of reasons, such as not being taught for a number of years or retired professors not being able to be replaced. Due to this, I had to look outside of UMPI for said courses and/or alternatives, which took a large chunk of my financial aid. This caused me to no longer have enough financial aid to live on campus. It was an extremely hard decision to make Wetherell said. “I had either to take the courses and not live on campus or live on campus but be set back due to the missing courses. It is also a situation that could be avoided and I hope it will be in the future.” This is just one of the numerous stories that students share naming their frustration about this “bureaucracy” that they have to face just to complete their degrees.
According to the chancellor’s report, “With Unified Accreditation, UMS universities and their faculties will be able to work out seamless ways for students to take courses from other UMS universities without having to transfer them back in, with their financial aid following them when they do and with the credits they earn from other UMS universities applying to their qualification for Dean’s list status. Over time, with UMS universities working out the details in coordination with System leadership, UMS students could have access to the full array of courses and programs across the entire System.”
What this means is that with Unified Accreditation, they hope for all the processes to be simplified and become more transparent, bring greater opportunities for the campus and its students and remove all barriers when it comes to student success.
Unified Accreditation is currently designed to secure the futures of the smaller UMS universities and with that serve the state effectively, respond to market changes and demands and, most critically, better support the students and their future. There is still a lot of work to be done, and it will certainly will not be achieved in the course of a year or two. But it will rather be a continual process to make things better.