Now that the class of 2019 has graduated, Minerva Schools at KGI can apply for accreditation as an independent institution. Teri Cannon, Minerva’s Chief Accreditation officer, plans to submit a report around the end of this calendar year to begin the process. If all goes well for Minerva, the school could be a separately accredited university as early as June 2021.
What Is Accreditation, and Why Does It Matter?
The accreditation system verifies that American higher learning institutions (and a few international ones) meet educational quality standards, a task that falls to the government in many other countries. The US Department of Education oversees and recognizes accrediting agencies, which in turn inspect and accredit postsecondary institutions in their region.
Minerva and other schools based in California are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). WASC accredits a wide variety of schools ranging from community colleges to religious institutions to Stanford and CalTech. No school is required to apply for accreditation, but, according to WASC, “because of the recognized benefits, most of the eligible institutions in this and other regions have sought to become accredited.”
When a school isn’t accredited, it likely doesn’t meet the WASC quality criteria. Accreditation, therefore, serves as the most basic test of a post-secondary institution’s legitimacy; it effectively splits the “fake” schools from the “real” ones.
How Could the Accreditation Process Work for Minerva?
The first report Cannon submits in December 2019 or January 2020 will demonstrate that Minerva meets the 16 Eligibility Criteria for Initial Accreditation. These criteria include financial viability, a clear mission statement, learning resources like libraries, and alumni (this was what kept Minerva from applying before the class of 2019 graduated).
If the WASC’s Eligibility Review Committee approves the report, the two organizations will set a date for a WASC team to visit Minerva. According to Cannon, Minerva will then submit a second report two months before the visit. This document will demonstrate that Minerva meets the WASC’s Initial Accreditation Standards, a separate set of criteria from those used to determine Eligibility.
After reviewing this report, the WASC team will come to San Francisco for several days to meet with students and faculty to further investigate Minerva. Cannon estimates that this visit could take place in the spring of 2021 at the earliest or the fall of 2021 if a later date is necessary. The team may also travel to another location where Minerva has students that semester or meet with students currently based outside the US via video call. According to Cannon, the group will likely consist of five to six higher education experts with different individual specialties, including academics, finance, student support, and global education.
Following the in-person review, the visiting team will determine if Minerva is in compliance with WASC’s Standards and pass their recommendation on to the WASC Commission that makes the final decision. If they accredit Minerva, the process is over except for periodic reviews.
If the Commission instead finds Minerva does not yet fully meet the Standards, they could deny Initial Accreditation. However, according to Cannon, the Commission would more likely grant Minerva “Candidacy” status. This status gives the school more time to show they meet the Standards before a second visit focused on the elements the team was not satisfied with.
“Many institutions take more than one visit to get Initial Accreditation,” Cannon said. “[But] we’re aiming to get it the first time out. We want to do everything possible to be sure we meet or exceed the standards.”
What is Minerva’s Current Accreditation Status?
As all prospective students are assured, Minerva is currently accredited by WASC, but as a branch campus of the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), not an independent school. While Minerva “incubates” within KGI, all major decisions at Minerva have been approved by the KGI administration, including faculty hires and substantial policy changes.
The two schools formed a partnership about six years ago in part because KGI, another young institution founded in 1997, was progressive-minded and excited about active learning. According to Cannon, KGI was small and fast-acting enough to approve decisions quickly and match the fast pace of Minerva’s development. The agreement is revenue-neutral for both schools, though Cannon said Minerva is allowing KGI to use the Forum software at cost while the two institutions are partnered together.
If WASC grants Minerva accreditation as a separate university, Cannon said, the incubation relationship between the two institutions will end. Students would no longer have access to shared resources like the Claremont Library (Minerva will have to develop its own library). Minerva would also get a new name to replace “Schools at KGI,” potentially “Minerva University.”
The most recent WASC report commended Minerva on its “innovative pedagogical practices” and the “impressive” feedback internship employers give students.
What Have Past Accreditation Reports Said About Minerva?
WASC accreditors have visited and assessed Minerva three times before: in 2013 and 2016, when the relationship between KGI and Minerva was reviewed and approved; and in 2018, when KGI’s Accreditation was reaffirmed. The most recent report commended Minerva on its “innovative pedagogical practices” and the “impressive” feedback internship employers give students.
The accreditors did find several potential issues during their investigation of Minerva. The 2018 report noted, for example, that “there is evidence suggestive of the need for greater attention to student academic support as well as mental and physical health services,” but carried on to say that “the school is aware of these concerns and has the leadership capacity to strengthen its support for student success.”
Visiting team members are academics from traditional schools hired to find flaws in higher learning institutions. As such, they each approached Minerva with a reasonable amount of skepticism. According to Cannon, it took “a lot of time and energy and words on paper” to explain the Minerva model to the visiting team.
These past reports seem promising, but Cannon emphasized that the accreditation process and its outcome are entirely under WASC’s control. While she and the rest of her team may do everything they can to get accreditation in one try, they can’t guarantee any outcome. If their work pays off, however, the class of 2022 could be the first graduates of an independently accredited “Minerva University.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that WASC teams had visited Minerva twice in the past. They have actually visited Minerva three times before.