My Fellowship Experience with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation | Rachel E. Smith


This summer, I worked with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) for eight weeks at their Washington, D.C. office. I contacted CHEA in September 2020 and asked if they offered internship opportunities for graduate students. They did not, but about a month later, they accepted me as a Summer 2021 CHEA Fellow, which also marked the inauguration of the CHEA Fellows Program.  

In the accreditation world, CHEA is the only non-government organization in the United States that recognizes regional and specialized accrediting organizations. Recognition indicates that accrediting organizations uphold standards of quality assurance and continuous improvement for the institutions and programs they accredit. Essentially, CHEA accredits accrediting organizations. CHEA also provides higher education accreditation resources and engages in higher education accreditation policy at the federal level. 

As a fellow, I primarily worked with the Vice President for Recognition Services and developed a strong understanding of the CHEA recognition process, which is the process regional and specialized accrediting organizations follow to obtain CHEA recognition. I reviewed and provided suggestions to the 2019 CHEA Recognition Policy and Procedures, which were being revised. I also entered accrediting organizations’ information into a new database CHEA created to track and archive recognition information. I observed several meetings the Vice President for Recognition Services had with accrediting organizations, in which she guided them through the recognition process. I also observed a Committee on Recognition (COR) meeting. COR met to discuss a variety of documents accrediting organizations submitted for recognition or continued recognition. 

This opportunity expanded my understanding of higher education accreditation in the United States because I was able to observe accreditation from a new perspective. Previously, I worked on a variety of accreditation reports at one institution. I learned a lot in that role, and it led to my interest in accreditation. As a CHEA Fellow, I observed accreditation processes from the perspective of a non-profit entity that impacts federal policy and frequently engages with educational associations and accrediting organizations. CHEA allowed me to meet with these higher education leaders, to include accreditation leaders representing online schools, faith-based schools and degree programs, and specialized programs, such as nursing. Through our discussions, I learned of the challenges accreditation organizations and the institutions and programs they accredit face. Many of these challenges (and subsequent innovations) emerged with the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in online education, and our country’s evolving political landscape that leads to changes in educational policy.  

One revelation emerged from this fellowship experience that I did not expect: a new dissertation topic. When I matriculated into the doctoral program, I was determined to study the regional accreditation histories of two historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Virginia. There are several HBCUs in Hampton Roads and Richmond, making the dissertation topic very feasible. But, as the fellowship progressed, I learned about the emergence of online program management companies, which are companies colleges and universities use to manage their online degree programs, to include marketing, course design, and recruitment. Accrediting organizations maintain standards for online education, but generally, the standards are fairly simple. We need more research to determine if accrediting organizations’ standards for online education are comprehensive enough to accommodate an extensive use of external companies to manage academic programs and student services. 

The fellowship provided significant academic and professional development, but I also learned a life lesson. If you want to work for an organization, but you know they do not offer internships, you should ask. I submitted a simple question to the “Contact Us” template on CHEA’s website. I did not know if CHEA checked those messages, but they do. And, ironically, they wanted to start a fellowship. I simply asked at the right time. If there is an organization you admire and want to partner with, send them an email. The worst they can say is, “No.”

As graduate students, fellowships and internships add another piece of the puzzle to our experiences as professionals and students, bringing new perspectives to what we have done and what we have learned. Fellowship and internship experiences also help confirm whether we want to continue in a particularly professional track and help refine our goals and interests. That’s how I regard the CHEA Fellowship: it confirmed my passion for accreditation and helped refine my topical interests as I learned about emerging challenges accreditation organizations and institutions are facing as technology and the pandemic continue to shape higher education. 

Rachel Smith is a student in the Ph.D. in Educational, Policy, Planning, and Leadership in the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Rachel is the Managing Editor of the William & Mary Educational Review