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Wednesday, 20 Sep 2017


Accreditation: The Missing Manual

San Francisco State University

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Donna E. Schafer, Ph.D.

National Association for Professional Gerontologists

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Accreditation of Gerontology programs will be an important theme of the November annual meeting of Gerontological Society of America (GSA) in New Orleans. In fact, AGHE is highlighting a Symposium: “Framing the Issues and One Vision for a Road Map Towards Accreditation.” AGHE’s emerging focus on accreditation represents a welcome new change of direction. Adopting a new approach to professional education is not unlike becoming familiar with a new electronic device. An “owner’s manual” can help guide the user through the functions and operation of a new system.

Let’s first get on the same page about the meaning of key terms. Understandably, eyes glaze over at the thought of definitions, but, like reading the manual, it is a necessary foundation for our understanding and discussion.

Getting Started

Accreditation: Accreditation is “...the act of accrediting or the state of being accredited; especially, the granting of approval to an institution of learning by an official review board after the school has met specific requirements” (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition, 2009). The key elements here are that academic institutions or programs are approved by an official organization based on meeting specified standards or requirements. It is important to understand that the national organization itself is acknowledged as representing the field and houses academic or professional leaders and claims responsibility for furthering the discipline or profession. The organization needs no other “permission” per se.

Certification: The terms “certification” or “certificate” are confusing because they can apply to academic programs, individual qualifications, or physical documents. Individuals can be certified in disparate professional fields. Some of the more amusing, but actual, ones include, “certified ethical hacker,” “traffic signal operations specialist,” “holistic information security practitioner,” and “master of wine.” While one cannot be certified as a Gerontologist, one can certainly have completed any of the many academic Gerontology certificate programs offered by colleges and universities. Unfortunately, you also can get a weekend workshop certificate and a piece of paper labeling you as a “Gerontologist.”

Licensure: After successfully completing an academic program in certain fields, an individual can obtain a license, which is granted only by an approved state agency. At present, there is no state-approved license for a Gerontologist. There are, however, myriad licenses for other specialties. For example, Washington State will license driver trainers and wrestlers; Utah licenses nail technicians and hunting guides; Mississippi soil classifiers or body piercers; in Michigan one can be a licensed boxer or carnival operator; and in New York one can obtain a license as an armored car guard or a pet cemetery operator. And yet, again, there are no licensed Gerontologists. The consequence is that students graduating from Gerontology programs are frustrated and disadvantaged in the marketplace because employers prefer licensed professionals (Woods, 2010).

Credentialing: A credential is “an attestation of qualification, competence, or authority issued to an individual by a third party with a relevant de jure or de facto authority or assumed competence to do so” (Wikipedia, 2010, para. 1). The term can also refer to the official record of one’s academic or professional attainment, such as an academic transcript. The value of the term “credential” is that it is inclusive and refers to an individual’s record of accomplishment rather than to a specific academic program of study, per se.

Syncing Up: Connecting Accreditation and Credentialing


Accreditation of Gerontology programs and credentialing of individual Gerontologists are inextricably connected. As de­scribed by Pelham, Schafer and Meyer (2009), credentialed Gerontologists will directly improve the quality of care for the elderly because of their comprehensive academic prepara­tion.

Enhanced expectations about quality of care will lead to in­creased public awareness and student demand for Gerontol­ogy education. Greater student demand results in increased resources for Gerontology programs. With more resources, programs are more likely to better serve their students and the community. An appropriate mechanism for recognizing high quality Gerontology programs is accreditation. Accreditation standards contribute to attracting superior students to Geron­tology programs and insure that resources such as faculty, staff, library holdings, and scholarships are provided to meet accreditation standards. Graduates of accredited programs are, by definition, appropriately prepared and, therefore, are excellent candidates for credentialing, employment, and lead­ership. While there is a dynamic and symbiotic relationship between accreditation and credentialing, it is ethical to avoid self-dealing and confounding the two by having the same na­tional organization both accredit programs and credential in­dividuals.


Running the Program: Why We Need Accreditation

In his Tibbitts lecture at the AGHE annual meeting in March, Frank Whittington (2010) referenced five reasons the field needs accreditation in order to grow and prosper:
1. Without accreditation, Gerontology programs are inherently weak, vulnerable, and unable to develop naturally.
2. Accreditation would help Gerontology programs gain respect and credibility.
3. Accreditation could help programs become or remain independent.
4. Accreditation could help programs make the case for resources, including tenure track faculty.
5. Whatever strengthens member programs will enhance AGHE.

For a more extensive discussion of the structural challenges associated with the lack of accreditation of Gerontology pro­grams, see Pelham (2008). Binstock (2008) reviewed some of Gerontology’s struggles, while Sterns and Ferraro (2008) reflected on the history and future of Gerontology education. Pelham and Schafer (2010) describe the relationship between accreditation and credentialing.

AGHE is clearly the most appropriate national organization to undertake accreditation of academic Gerontology programs. AGHE’s Program of Merit (POM) is not widely recognized as equivalent to accreditation, but could become the first step in a multi-stage, fully developed accreditation process overseen by AGHE.


Trouble-Shooting: Next Steps


The movement toward accreditation is gaining momentum. Whittington’s call to action is gaining support. James Appleby, Executive Director of GSA, highlighted accreditation in his mes­sage in a recent issue of the AGHExchange (Appleby, 2010). Graham Rowles (2010), President of AGHE, argued for build­ing on the POM and moving toward adopting accreditation stan­dards for Gerontology programs. At the same time, Janet Frank (UCLA) and her colleagues are developing Gerontology and Ge­riatrics professional competencies. These could become foun­dational components of accreditation standards. Currently, Mari­lyn Gugliucci (AGHE Past President) is chairing a new AGHE accreditation ad hoc committee.

Finally, these and other initiatives will be explored at the accreditation symposium at the annual GSA meeting this November in New Orleans. Laissez les bon temps rouler!


Appleby, J. (2010, Spring/Summer). An AGHE call to action. AGHExchange, 33(3), p. 8. Retrieved from http://www.aghe.org/clientimages/40634/publications/aghexchangeonline/aghexchange_springsummer10.pdf
Binstock, R. (2008). Will gerontology come of age? A Discipline’s Struggles. Aging Today, 29(2), 3-4.
Pelham, A. (2008). Can academic gerontology keep from becoming irrelevant? Aging Today, 29(2), 3-4.
Pelham, A. & Schafer, D. (2010, March). Issue 4: Challenge of the Madrid international plan of action on aging: Education of gerontologists and aging professionals. Session presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, Reno, NV.
Pelham, A., Schafer, D., & Meyer, M. (2009, July). A model for credentialing the education of gerontologists. Session presented at the World Congress of Gerontology, Paris.
Rowles, G. (2010, Spring/Summer). AGHE president’s message. AGHExchange, 33(3), p. 8. Retrieved from http://www.aghe.org/clientimages/40634/publications/aghexchangeonline/aghexchange_springsummer10.pdf
Sterns H., & Ferraro, K. (2008). The evolution of gerontology education over three decades. Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 28, 3-12.
Whittington, F. (2010, March). The joy of gerontology: Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Lecture presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, Reno, NV.
Wikipedia. (2010). Credential. Retrieved August 18, 2010 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credential
Woods, U., (2010, March). Career progression in aging: A gamble or a sure bet? Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education, Reno, NV.