Perceptions of an Initial CACREP
Accreditation by Students in Program
Jill K. Bryant
Indiana University South Bend
When a program resolves to pursue an initial Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accreditation, they set in motion a considerable undertaking for all concerned. The changes and challenges of this process are considerable for many of the stakeholders. This study examined the perceptions and experiences of a cohort of students caught in this transitional process in order to better understand their perspective. Results from this study offer insight into the perceived advantages and disadvantages of seeking accreditation from the student perspective, and offer student-sensitive suggestions for future programs seeking an initial CACREP accreditation.
The history of accreditation in the United States spans nearly 100 years, historically embedded in the mission to promote and protect public health (Eaton, 2006). Accreditation is a voluntary process whereby institutions elect to accept the standards and criteria of the accrediting organization and take part in an external review (Eaton, 2006; Hosie, 1991). Since its incorporation in 1981, CACREP, a programmatic accreditor recognized by the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA) has become the primary counseling-related accrediting organization (Bobby, 1992; McGlothlin & Davis, 2004) currently accrediting 228 institutions and over 500 programs (CACREP, 2009).
The preparation standards set down by CACREP are considered minimal criteria, and are addressed with eight core curriculum areas as well as requirements for specialty areas above and beyond the core curriculum requirements (CACREP, 2001). Furthermore, the core curriculum is strongly tied to most state licensing requirements and questions on the National Counselor Exam (NCE) (CACREP, n.d.a). There are five phases to the CACREP accreditation process and they include first a self-study, followed by the application including the self-study and explanation of how the basic standards have been addressed. Next, an on-site visit is conducted, including a report from the visiting team and the institution’s response to the team report. The fourth phase is the accreditation decision, and the final stage is the submission of periodic reports and the annual fee (Bobby, 1992; CACREP, n.d.b).
Previous publications have discussed both concerns as well as advantages of the CACREP accreditation process (Adams, 2006; Alterkruse & Wittmer, 1991; Remley, 1991; Schmidt, 1999; Weinrach, 1991). Weinrach (1991) speculated CACREP standards would discriminate against smaller programs, reduce creativity in teaching and program development, and inadvertently discriminate against students who were not able to accommodate the strenuous clinical requirements. Pate (1990) also posited that two specific groups of students would be discouraged from entering CACREP programs; part-time students and school counselors employed as teachers. Remley, (1991) too, suggested that “once standards are set, creativity and innovation often are stifled” (p. 81). Alterkruse and Wittmer (1991), however, proposed benefits to accreditation including advantages in state certification for graduates of a CACREP program, and the fact CACREP programs do not have to undergo the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) accreditation process. While Hosie (1991) agreed accreditation has positive effects on licensure and credentialing, he also asserted the increase in hours at the master’s level might have a negative effect on doctoral programs.
The counseling literature is replete with research examining everything from the relevance of CACREP accreditation in general, to studies exploring specific standards, policies, and substandards (Bobby & Kandor, 1992; McGlothlin & Davis, 2004; Vacc, 1992). Schmidt (1992) examined the relationship between CACREP accreditation and hiring practices of school systems in a single state. Still others looked at perceptions of CACREP standards by practicing school counselors (Holcomb-McCoy, Bryan, & Rahill, 2002) and the relationship between professional certification (i.e., the National Certified Counselor) scores and pass rates comparing graduates of CACREP and non-accredited programs (Milsom & Akos, 2007).
After reviewing the literature, it is noteworthy that two areas have escaped examination. First, there is little if any research on student perceptions of CACREP while they are students in program. Furthermore, there are no studies specifically examining what it is like for a program to go through the accreditation process. A number of past studies have argued the need for, or hardships of, accreditation. However, with over 500 programs currently accredited by CACREP, it seems that line of reasoning may no longer be as relevant as it once was.
In light of this void in the literature, and the fact that, with recent changes and additions to some CACREP standards (i.e., programmatic changes from community counseling to clinical mental health many programs will soon be in the process of transition again, it seemed reasonable to examine the views of students who are experiencing a change in program (in this case, an initial CACREP accreditation process) in order to gain student perspective. Results of this study will not only shed light on how students are affected, but also how programs can better meet their needs during the process.
The participant sample for this study was 14 graduates (in a calendar year) of a recently CACREP-accredited counseling program at a Midwestern university (N = 14). All graduates were present during the transition process within the program, entering the 3-year program when it was a non-accredited program, and graduating when it was CACREP-accredited. All had experienced firsthand the impact of changes during the initial CACREP accreditation process from the perspective of a student. Of the 14 students approached to take part in the study, 8 students volunteered to participate (n = 8). Six of the participants (75.0%) were Caucasian, one was African American (12.5%), and one was Latina (12.5%); 7, (87.5%) were female and 1,(12.5%) was male. Three (37.5%) of the individuals were in their early to mid-twenties, having entered the counseling program immediately upon completion of their undergraduate degree. Two of the participants were in their late 20s to early 30s (25%) and the remaining participants (37.5%) were in their late 30s or 40s.
After receiving approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), participants were approached regarding the study. Of the 14 students, three had already graduated, and they were mailed an invitation letter and informed consent because the alumni office did not have a current e-mail address for those students. The remaining students received participant information via e-mail or in person. With the purpose of protecting participants, none were approached to interview until after their graduation ceremony. In order to keep anonymity, participants were interviewed by a research assistant, trained by the author and provided with a structured interview protocol. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed before the author was allowed to review the data. Anonymity was imperative (and a prerequisite of the Institutional Review Board) as the researcher had a professional relationship with some of the participants and some of the faculty members of this institution. The interviews were conducted in a private neutral location free from distractions and disruptions. At the beginning of the meeting participants were oriented to the nature of study being conducted, including procedures and informed consent. Open-ended questions were utilized to facilitate rich narratives and exhaustive exploration of the participants’ experiences.
The audio-tapes of the interviews were transcribed verbatim. The first step in data analysis began with the author immersing in the data by reading the transcripts repeatedly, noting prominent phrases, words, or events. Significant statements regarding the student experience were extracted from each narrative. Next, using constant comparative methodology, the author analyzed data using open, axial, and selective coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), looking for patterns of meaning to emerge. The author continued coding and revisiting the transcripts until themes surfaced. Due to requirements of participant anonymity by IRB, the author was not allowed to share preliminary themes with participants and receive their feedback.
The analysis generated four themes discussed below. Themes comprise inferences from the data analysis as well as selections in the participants’ own words that best illustrate the meaning and substance of the themes.
Trials and Tribulations but Ultimately Personal Growth
The data gathered suggested participants were quite capable of recalling and articulating how the CACREP accrediting process affected their three years of counselor training. By far, the majority of comments described their experience as emotionally challenging as one participant stated, “It took its toll, I think, by the time I was done, um, my emotions were pretty raw, just because, it seemed to be more stressful that what it needed to be if the program was on a firm foundation.” Another student reflected on the experience commenting, “It was very frustrating to the point where my blood pressure would go up and I would sit and almost think I can’t do this and I’m an A student, this is ridiculous.”
Many students quickly adjusted and found they needed to advocate for themselves at times when changes were problematic. For instance, one participant revealed “I think one thing that our group did very well, our cohort did very well is if there was a change that was made and not really an explanation, we didn’t usually let them get away with that, it was, hey wait a minute, you’re changing midstream, we deserve a better explanation.” While a number of students found the experience challenging, they also recognized it was a personal growth event. One student shared such insights; “It’s a great learning experience about yourself, so you learn a lot to be more flexible, what you need to be as a counselor is to be flexible so it really helps hone those types of skills.” In another comment, a student recognized growth not only in him/herself, but others as well sharing, “I guess I could say is it taught many of us to be more flexible, it taught many of us to learn to kind of go roll with the punches, go with the flow, try and put things into perspective.”
Changes Necessitate Transparency and Intentionality in Communicating With Students
The second theme elucidates the immense challenge that exists for a program in the midst of an initial accreditation. Changes are a prevalent issue for both faculty as well as students in an initial accreditation, but students are at the mercy of faculty to communicate and notify them of salient changes. Therefore it is not surprising students perceived the changes they experienced as constant, immense, and at times even arbitrary. One student stated, “I can’t say that there was any part of the program that we didn’t struggle through because it was just constantly things were being changed on us.” For some students, exact reasons for the changes were unclear as one shared that they really had “to buckle down and get this done now because they’ve added five or six more expectations and I don’t know if those are CACREP expectations or professor expectations.”
A number of students felt they were poorly informed of the changes by their faculty as noted by comments such as “the lack of information it would throw off my schedule, things would be poorly communicated” and another commented they learned about changes “by default! If we picked it up and we asked about it… that’s probably how.” Participants felt so out-of-the-loop at times that several shared they were unsure if or when their program actually became accredited. An example of the confusion is found in a participant who stated, “I still don’t know, I just assumed we are because they kept saying we’re CACREP accredited, they kept putting the CACREP stuff on the syllabus so I was like, ok, I guess we’re CACREP accredited now.” Some students proposed ideas of how to best keep students informed with one suggesting, “If you’re going to make this is a change, put it in writing, send an email as well, do three different versions of communication or use the mass communication for that program to make sure that everybody knows the same information so that everybody’s not getting mixed information from hearsay.” Another student cautioned, “but to help make the transition as smooth as possible make sure you’re communicating to those students because it does affect them too, so just keep that in mind.”
Students Value Accreditation, but Are Also Concerned with Real World Implications
While students may not have been part of the decision-making process to pursue accreditation, they had definite opinions on what it meant to have their program become accredited. The majority of the comments for this theme suggested students viewed their degree as having more value coming from an accredited program. One student shared, “It sounded like if we do this thing then my degree would mean more than it would; I would have more professional credibility by saying, yes, I complied with or have been subjected to these standards” while another student stated, “I think that the fact that there’s some air of importance, like integrity to that accreditation that I think down the road will really benefit the program and the graduates from the program.” Students could also see the educational value of accreditation as demonstrated in the following comment: “Probably the biggest benefit hopefully will be that the program will become much more organized so that the future cohorts maybe will have something much more structured, much more, I guess formalized.” Another student believed the process would improve his or her program when he or she stated, “to me anything that ups the academic standards. I think the program needs more academic rigor.”
While students were aware of benefits, there was some concern that schools and agencies in the area were either unaware of what a CACREP accreditation means, or may in fact, simply not care. One student elaborated on this concern by sharing his/her experience in a school setting stating, “because I can remember when I was doing my advanced practicum and that well this program is CACREP, like who cares? Like I got the sense that he had no idea what that meant, you know and you would think that, that um, educational institutions would value accreditation.” Finally, students shared frustration as they noted pedagogical changes which they attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the new accreditation standards. One comment best articulated this subtheme when a student shared, “the standards of CACREP asks not about relating that to the practical real world, what we’re going to experience as counselors instead it was let’s teach what it says, it was very black and white and counseling is not black and white, it’s very gray and so you’re being taught all this, this bookwork because of what CACREP wants you to do but you’re not relating that back to practical experiences.”
Observing the Accrediting Process Illuminates Faculty Weaknesses
The final theme that emerged from an analysis of the data suggested that students were paying close attention to faculty during this transition, and the experience changed some initial perceptions about the program. Students were aware of some strain within the faculty as one shared, “There was constantly that sense that as you were going through classes that there was some butting heads and things like that.” Another student stated, “I’m not so sure that all of the staff when they started going through this CACREP had a real understanding of how the program was going to change and I think some of them dug their heels in.”
Students were unhappy with what they perceived to be a lack of consistently applying the new standards in coursework. One student shared, “I guess, the only concern that I had regarding coursework and regarding the whole CACREP program would have been perhaps how or why were the requirements not standard for all the students in the program” while another shared, “I think it’s important that as a cohort, as we move through the process that the process is a similar as it can be.” One result of the accreditation experience was a change of heart regarding her/his own program. One student shared, “This is a mess and it just doesn’t make you feel like your program is professional and they cared enough about your money and your time which you’re spending in this program to even consider your concerns and your issues.” Another student stated, “It made me think a little bit more about the program and the, you know, I believed in the program very strongly, at one point it was ok, but then I began to think maybe it wasn’t so together anymore.”
The results of this current study extend findings of the general literature regarding the CACREP accreditation process and also offer new insights with reference to the influence an initial CACREP accreditation process may have on the program and most specifically, the students in the midst of the change. First, it is clear that an initial accreditation experience affects the students in program significantly, and they perceive the experience in both positive and negative ways. Participants in the study felt vulnerable at times,, and listed a number of negative affective experiences. In contrast to the negative, some comments suggested a resilience from the experience as students developed advocacy skills required for approaching faculty about changes. Perhaps most remarkable was the recognition by some that, while this certainly was a trying experience, the ever-changing programmatic expectations afforded them the opportunity to develop flexibility, for which they were grateful. Currently, no other studies were found in the literature to compare with the results of this theme.
The second theme illuminates a number of aspects related to the management of the immense change taking place while these participants were training. Students shared that it appeared to them things were always in a state of flux. The changes were most notable in individual classes, as expectations could be modified numerous times in a semester without a clear explanation why the changes needed to occur. Students were rarely given context or reasons for the adjustments except to attribute them to CACREP, even though some students commented the changes might have been professor-driven, but there was no way to know. Clearly more information with the changes would have been beneficial, and perhaps eliminated some negative reactions. Another student complaint suggested the faculty in this program failed in their charge of keeping students informed and up to date on changes, and these were expressed as a complete or limited lack of information being shared, or information coming to the students at the very last minute. It is hard to know at this point if this problem is more an artifact of this particular faculty, or the accreditation process. Students in this study also suggested or requested faculty give more consideration to their duty to correspond with students, and suggested using a variety of communication methods in order to achieve a more successful result. At this time, no studies were found examining student perceptions of communication and change during accreditation, so comparisons to previous literature were not possible.
Students in this study had some definite ideas regarding CACREP accreditation, as illustrated by the third theme. In general, students found the process of having their program accredited to be a benefit. First, they believed the degree they earned would have more value coming from an accredited program. Being CACREP accredited communicates to others the standards required for a degree are optimal, and that was valued by students in this study. This finding is similar to past literature suggesting generally positive views of CACREP accreditation ((McGlothlin & Davis, 2004Schmidt, 1999; Wilcoxin, Cecil, & Comas, 1987) and the conviction accreditation enhances professional identity (McGlothlin & Davis, 2004; Pate, 1990). Participants were also able to see the merit in accreditation because they perceived it provided structure and increased rigor in their current program. Some comments in this study suggested students felt this program could benefit from some imposed structure. Such results are congruent with past research indicating the standards, specifically core standards, are valued by both students and faculty (Schmidt, 1999; Smaby & D’Andrea, 1995; Vacc, 1985). Students in this sample were keenly aware of the lack of knowledge present in community agencies and schools regarding CACREP and an accredited program and suggested the obligation was on the department to inform and educate community partnerships regarding this big step and its implications. Uncertainty that schools and agencies may not value CACREP accreditation, is suggested in previous literature (Schmidt, 1992), and LaFountain and Baer (2001) offered nine specific suggestions programs could implement in their correspondence with employers and site supervisors that would ameliorate this particular issue. Finally, students in this study appeared irritated by faculty who taught to the standards but failed to apply the coursework to real-world experiences, and from the interviews it became evidenced that the participants believed this was a result of the accrediting experience. Such perceptions correspond with previous work by McGlothlin and Davis (2004).
The remaining theme focused more on student perceptions of their program. Results suggest the students were attentive, watching the manner in which their faculty navigated the initial accrediting process. First, the students picked up on palpable tension within the program and faculty and sensed that everyone was not on the same page with regard to impending changes, and how to implement such changes. In addition to perceived tension, students also noted a great deal of confusion by faculty due to mixed messages they would receive. They also sensed a void of leadership which may have contributed to the observable concerns. No comparison studies for these findings were available.
Students in this study also expressed irritation at the inconsistency in implementation of the new changes in their program. Again, this implied a lack of faculty being united in the process and perhaps a lack of communication and leadership through the transition. In fact, several students stated these inconsistencies were their biggest concern throughout the process. Lastly, comments from participants suggested the negative effects of the CACREP accrediting process significantly contributed to the change in opinion of their own program. Comments in this section mentioned students actually considered leaving the program, began looking at different programs, and when asked, would no longer recommend their program to others considering pursuing a counseling degree. These results would parallel concerns by previous authors regarding the effect of a CACREP accreditation (e.g., discouraged students or programs would lose students). However, previous literature projected a reduction in students due to increased clinical requirements, not the actual accreditation experience itself (Cecil et al., 1987; Pate, 1990; Weinrach, 1991).
This study has several limitations consistent with qualitative methods. The results are not generalizable, although care was taken to provide sufficient context for readers to make their own decisions regarding the application of these results to their own experience. The study may have benefited from additional data gathering methods, such as a focus group, or observations, but since this study was post facto, those opportunities were not possible. Another limitation was the participant pool; only a small number of participants were selected from a single subgroup. Finally, there is a scarcity of literature or research on this specific topic, making some comparisons of results to literature unachievable.
Implications from this study are fairly straightforward and come directly from the themes. First, faculty should be aware this transition affects their students in both positive and negative ways. Therefore, faculty might incorporate this process into their teaching and use student experiences and reactions as teachable moments. In addition, faculty might model or self-disclose the manner in which they are meeting the challenges of an initial accreditation and explore parallels for their students’ in their future professional roles. Finally, faculty could also create opportunities for students to develop their own support such as a support or cohort group experience, or a student organization if one does not already exist.
Faculty must also be sensitive to the number of changes that take place for students, both at the macro, as well as micro level. It would behoove faculty to be proactive in making changes to courses and syllabi. Along with the immense change comes the responsibility of keeping students apprised of the situations occurring throughout the transition. Failure to keep students informeds not only disrespectful, but clearly not best practice. Faculty should create a number of consistent methods for communicating with students and be sure to use multiple methods, such as email or list serve, oral communication in class, and written communication as needed. It would be helpful to assign a student or a committee of students to interface with the faculty regarding changes and assist with the communication to their peers. Accreditation is a dynamic process, and informing students once or twice is simply not sufficient, as they will often not have context for the information the first few times they hear it.
Students in general value accreditation and the improved structure and training it often provides. One significant concern, however, is just how much or how little accreditation is valued by those in the community, namely the schools and agencies our students will interact with during their clinical experience as well as their future employment. Faculty may wish to create a plan for advertising and educating the meaning and value of accreditation to these stakeholders. Methods for informing, advertising and educating schools and agencies would be tied to the program and personnel, the university resources, and the regional area served by the program.
Finally, faculty must be diligent in coming together for the sake of this process. If faculty appear divided or ambivalent, students will detect these issues. While organizational change is not without its predictable challenges, best practice would suggest the program do what they can to minimize such problems. Therefore, strong leadership is needed during this transitional process, and personal or programmatic disagreements should be dealt with honestly by faculty, in an attempt to present a unified front to their students.
In conclusion, an initial CACREP accreditation is often a demanding undertaking for faculty and program. During this process, it is imperative to consider the student perspective throughout the transitions and be diligent in addressing possible student needs and concerns. Students value accreditation and earning a degree from an accredited program. The value of this experience can be hampered, however, by a poorly implemented transition towards accreditation. Incorporating the student perspective in initial planning and implementation of an initial CACREP accreditation can facilitate a smoother process for everyone involved.
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