Later this spring, a team of accreditors will visit the campus of Wheaton College.
Like most colleges and universities, Wheaton hosts a visit like this once a decade. The accreditors will represent the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools -- one of six regional bodies that oversee accreditation for colleges and universities across the country.
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The accreditation process begins with rigorous self-study, as faculty and administrators across campus respond in writing to questions posed by the Higher Learning Commission.
In Wheaton's case, the self-study report runs to 169 pages, supported by nearly 2,000 separate documents that provide evidence for every substantial claim made in the report.
The self-study advances one of the primary purposes of the reaccreditation process, namely, to help each school improve the quality of its academic programs.
It is easy to assume that a college or university is effective in educating its students without ever taking a serious look. And when it comes to taking a serious look at something, there is nothing quite like having someone else looking over one's shoulder.
This is where the accreditation team comes in. During the months leading up to their three-day visit, a small team of presidents, provosts, deans and/or faculty members from other colleges or universities in the region will read Wheaton's self-study carefully.
They will measure our programs against the Higher Learning Commission's Criteria for Accreditation and determine which aspects of our academic program may require further investigation.
While they are on campus, the team members will probe into areas of concern by conducting in-depth interviews with faculty, staff, students and administrators across campus, as well as members of the board of trustees.
Hopefully, their final report will certify that Wheaton continues to meet the standard of academic accreditation (as the college has since 1916). The team may also suggest areas of needed improvement, including some that will require future reporting to the Higher Learning Commission.
An important benefit of accreditation is to help ensure that American taxpayers get a good return on their investment. Higher education is a public good that receives government support through student financial aid, faculty research grants, and other allocations.
Both state and federal governments give aid to private as well as public institutions. For example, each year roughly 500 Wheaton students receive a Pell Grant -- the federal government's primary award for students from low-income families.
Our relatively high number of Pell Grant recipients (in comparison with other national liberal arts colleges) is a sign that we are fulfilling our mission of providing an excellent education for students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.
All of our students (and their parents) have a vested interest in the excellence of a Wheaton education. They, too, are making a substantial investment in Wheaton College, and they rightly expect to get an excellent return for their time and tuition dollars.
Given the substantial investment that the government makes in our students -- and that our students make in the classroom -- we need to be able to demonstrate that we deliver on our promise to provide a first-rate education.
Accreditation is Wheaton's public opportunity to demonstrate the quality of our academic programs to a jury of our peers.
• Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College. His column appears periodically in Neighbor.