Happy New Year! Whether you are a Sanville Institute alumni or a prospective student, this blog is being launched in 2016 to provide information on the exciting events happening at the school and to contribute to the psychotherapy community dialogue on topics not widely covered in graduate classrooms or clinical magazines. The first topic we are hoping to discuss is the decision to seek accreditation for our school after almost 30 years of being a state-approved, though unaccredited educational institution. This has been a hotly debated issue for us over the years, and many prospective students wonder what difference it might make for them. We hope to shed some light on the issue and discuss why we think it is going to make our school a better place to learn.
To begin, I want to outline what accreditation means, why it may be important for a psychotherapist, and whether there might be any drawbacks. After that, I want to talk more specifically about how accreditation will affect The Sanville Institute and our rigorous clinical curriculum aimed at adult learners.
What is Accreditation in Psychotherapy PhD Programs?
Accreditation is the process by which an organization (a hospital or university, for example) is assessed to see if it meets a set of standards. In the case of universities, the accrediting body puts together teams of peer reviewers from other educational institutions to determine how standards that reflect good practice in higher education apply to a particular institution. Re-accreditation is validated every five to ten years to insure the university is maintaining the requirements and rigor that is expected of an institution granting the degree(s). Accreditation is managed by accrediting agencies, such as the Western Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), approved by the US Department of Education.
Until 2014, California had a process for approving private, degree-granting post-secondary schools, whether they were accredited or not. For degrees leading to licensure, requirements varied depending on the profession: schools preparing students for licensure as an MFT or Psychologist could be either approved or accredited, as long as they provided the course requirements for licensure, but accreditation (from the Commission on Accreditation of the Council on Social Work Education) has always been necessary for schools offering the MSW degree. Since all Sanville Institute students must be licensed or license-eligible, they have already graduated from an accredited or approved Master’s program. As ours is a doctoral program not leading to licensure, we did not fall under the same requirements as those schools offering master’s degrees.
As a state approved school, Sanville students have been able to pursue a rigorous program of doctoral study that is psychodynamically focused and neurobiologically informed. We have been able to develop a unique self-paced program with a flexible, individualized curriculum geared for adult learners. We have also been able to keep class size small and fees lower, partly because we did not have to pay the fees and other costs associated with accreditation. In 2014, however, spurred by changes in the State Approval law, we were confronted with either becoming accredited or closing our doors.
Why does Accreditation Matter to a Psychotherapist?
Attending an accredited doctoral program is not a primary deciding factor for many psychotherapists who already have a Master’s degree and a license to practice in the mental health field. Their decision to pursue advanced clinical training in order to become a better psychotherapist, or to do research, or to publish, or teach, or to deepen their understanding of clinical theory and issues is based on the strength of the curriculum and clinical training received, not on accreditation.
Indeed, The Sanville Institute has a large group of alumni who feel, as I do, that they received the very best clinical education possible at Sanville. Some psychotherapists seeking a doctoral degree, however, also have broader goals such as teaching, publication, research, or consultation, and many of us who graduated from Sanville have also succeeded as university professors, private practice clinicians, non-profit directors, consultants, book authors, and teachers. So, while lack of accreditation has not typically been an issue for our alumni, we believe that achieving it can only strengthen our program and bring further recognition and validation of our high quality doctoral program.
What is Sanville Doing to Become Accredited?
As I attended Sanville events throughout 2015, I was often engaged in discussions with other alumni who expressed fear about the possible implications of accreditation for our school. That is, they wondered whether accreditation would force the school to change the core of who we are and compromise the strength of our mission to offer the very best doctoral level clinical education for mental health professionals. This was an important question we had asked ourselves for a long time and we struggled to make the best decision for our students.
In 2014, a law passed in California intended to protect consumers of higher education programs. The legislators opted to take a wide brush approach thereby requiring ALL unaccredited degree-granting institutions to become accredited. We in the Sanville community joined with other like-minded schools to lobby against this decision, knowing that there were a number of excellent state-approved, unaccredited schools. We also worried about the expense and faculty and staff time required to achieve accreditation and were concerned that timeline for becoming accredited was not realistic. We also feared that external requirements might result in us having to compromise the flexibility and academic philosophy of the Institute. We had considered closing the school rather than changing our core values in education.
… but then we calmed down and took a look at exactly what it would mean to become accredited. And, we discovered many things that can benefit incoming students. As an accredited school we will be able:
- – to take a close look at our program of 30 years and make it even better
- – to achieve the status and recognition that our program deserves
- – to apply to participate in federal financial aid programs and open the possibility for students to qualify for student loans to help with education
– to apply for state-sponsored grants to supplement lower income students’ education
With these four key points in mind, we are happy to inform our alumni and prospective students that we have chosen to pursue accreditation with the Western Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), which is the regional accrediting body for this part of the U.S. In our initial conversations with WASC we were impressed with their understanding of our culture and community, and their openness to considering accrediting a school as small as ours. We were assured that we could continue all the benefits of Sanville (small class size, faculty relationships with the students, independent study, and the one-to-one clinical consultation that make a Sanville PhD unique). In addition, accreditation would open the way to offer students who can’t finance their education all at once the option of federal or state-sponsored loans and grants. Overall, we felt this was a win-win for our community and our school. So, we have started the process.
It is a long journey to accreditation. In the fall of 2015, we met WASC’s Eligibility requirements, the first step of the multi-phase process. We are currently working as a community to complete an intensive self-study, program review, and three-year strategic planning process and we are hoping to be ready to schedule our site visit sometime early in 2017. And the more we enter into this process, the more confident we feel that accreditation will strengthen the core values and the educational foundation so that Sanville will continue to provide excellence in education for many more decades to come.
Thanks for reading our first blog post of 2016! Happy New Year and thanks for being a part of our community.
Kristen Zaleski, PhD, LCSW
Sanville Institute Board Member and Alumni