The Trail of Tears: How One Small Online College Struggles Through the Accreditation Process

In this report, we highlight the struggles of a small college seeking accreditation. The college is Western Institute for Social Research, located in Berkeley, CA. []

A small liberal arts college offering programs in “higher education and social change”, the College has decided to try to get accredited and this is their story taken from their public statements on their website.  We recount their story to show the difficulties and costs involved for any small, boutique college trying to obtain accreditation.

In 2017, plans were apparently underway toward requesting accreditation through the Distance Education Accreditation Commission ( ). Having made initial inquiries, we can assume that the College had an initial meeting or preliminary application and began the arduous process of complying with the reams of paperwork, required by the accrediting agency for consideration.  The College reported that they were adopting an “Annual Faculty Development Plan” (required for accreditation consideration) and stating: “Now that WISR is seeking accreditation, we are required to be more conscious about the process of faculty development—helping each faculty member to create a written plan for their development over the next year, and then evaluating at the end of the year what has happened, and the appropriate steps for the next year.  The accreditation process will provide a good stimulus and occasion for to make our faculty development efforts more conscious, intentional and effective.”

In completing this Plan, each Faculty member would be required to complete a portfolio of documentation including:



END OF YEAR SELF-ASSESSMENT (similar to student’s descriptions and assessment of their learning and accomplishments during a course of study at WISR).

Examples of other required documents for the portfolio included:

Certificates or other documentation of continuing education courses taken and completed, including date(s) of each activity, and topic(s) addressed.

A log of WISR-sponsored professional development activities in which they have participated (brief description of each activity and date held). [Include date(s) of each activity and topic(s) addressed.]

List of any relevant professional or community leadership activities during the year, along with the dates of each activity and the topics addressed by each activity—including membership in professional organizations, participation in professional or community conferences and events, jobs and volunteer work outside of WISR, for example.

List of relevant self-directed learning activities, and participation in WISR’s institutional functioning and development.

Copies of articles, Papers or Books written, and published or presented a professional conferences.

Clippings from newspapers and professional newsletters, for example, describing the faculty member’s participation in and contributions to their profession and community.

Evaluations or letters from colleagues, co-workers, students and others who know about the faculty member’s performance as a WISR faculty member, as a professional in their field, or as an engaged citizen or community leader.

Next, in June 2017,  came the required establishment of the Academic Advisory Committee: “The role of the Advisory Committee is primarily one of helping us think of ways to continue to develop our strong academic programs, and further improve them—in ways that will be both true to our mission and values, and also compelling to, and valued by, many leaders in conventional academia. In part, the Advisory Committee members will serve as external reviewers to help us to evaluate our graduate programs, and their insights and wisdom will be helpful and valuable to inform our efforts in the coming months and years.”

In November 2017, the College reported having raised over $30,000 and was seeking a total of $60,000 in total matching funds, indicating “The monies donated can substantially strengthen our ability to successfully pursue accreditation.”

In August 2018, updates to “WISR’s pursuit for accreditation” were presented at a luncheon,   plans for establishing required student learning assessments were put in motion.

The College indicated that of the original $60,000 sought in 2017, a total of $44,000 in donations was received. The College indicated they would be paying of some debt: “Our ability to eliminate ALL of our debt is crucial to our becoming accredited, and which stood at $45,000 in debt 18 months ago, and $37,500 in debt just six months ago”.

Of these funds donated, $20,000 was used for accreditation fees, and another $8,000 for CPA fees (we assume for financial statements to be supplied to the accrediting agency). “Remaining funds will be used to set up a much-needed contingency fund—which is also expected by the accreditation agency.”

The College concluded: “We have made enormous progress, financially, in the past year, although we will need to continue and sustain this progress over the next several years, in order to become accredited.

On January 6, 2018, the College reported: “WISR has been declared eligible to pursue accreditation by the Distance Education Accreditation Commission ( ).  As always, there are no guarantees, but we are hopeful that we can achieve accreditation by June 2020.  WASC [ Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges]  turned down our application for Eligibility last month, because they felt that we do not have, nor will we be able to develop, the large financial reserve and institutional infrastructure in the next two years that they expect of the (usually very large and conventional academic institutions they accredit).

On November 12, 2018, the College reported: “First and foremost, we will have to pay about $45,000 in accreditation fees—first, $25,000 to submit our self-study and our online courses for review by DEAC  in early 2019, and then, hopefully $20,000 for a site visit late in 2019.

We have enough in our savings account to pay for half of those costs, and can use most of our $25,000 line of credit with the bank to pay for the rest of the costs.  However, our chances for getting accreditation in the next two years go up considerably if 1) we don’t touch our savings account, and 2) are actually able to increase the $23,000 in savings with another $25,000.  Having nearly $50,000 in savings would be a huge plus in seeking accreditation.”

[Reference: ]


Whatever happens, we wish the Western Institute for Social Research all the best of good fortune in their journey toward accreditation.

This account highlights the difficulties…in most cases the impossibilities…of a small budget offering like Blue Marble University to obtain accreditation. Frankly, the payment of the fees mentioned would bankrupt us. And the fees mentioned do not even include all the accounting fees, legal fees, education consultant fees needed to undertake an accreditation campaign. The $45,000 mentioned above was only for application related fees directly to the accreditor, and did not include the many other associated costs. We estimate a total cost package of a minimum of $100,000, which amount has always been way beyond what we can afford.

The U.S. Department of Education thinks accreditation reviews cost even more:

As noted in a 2018 Report issued by the US Department of Education, continuing accreditation reviews are costly, with many institutions claiming that, due to the added costs of legal support and consulting services, they can run as high as $1 million for a single institution. [Reference: Rethinking Higher Education: Accreditation Reform, 2018, Page 8]

Can we increase out tuition to cover such costs? Yes, but at the expense of losing many fine students from India, Africa, Europe and Asia who cannot afford any higher tuition than we charge. We continue to serve not only Americans,  but many students with far lesser financial resources.

Blue Marble University, based in the Commonwealth of Dominica, is not accredited by any US accreditor. And does not have to be. Even the U.S. Department of Education agrees, noting in their December 2018 discussion of needed accreditation reform:

“Postsecondary accreditation is a voluntary process in that a college or university need not be accredited in order to provide instruction or confer academic degrees. [Reference at Page 1: US Dept of Education 2018:Rethinking Higher Education: Accreditation Reform]

Blue Marble University
We know Online Education…And We Do It Well



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