Just a few days ago, the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE) announced the addition of the newest member of accredited schools in the United States: The University of Pikeville’s Kentucky College of Optometry.
This announcement may be confusing to some: how can a non-accredited school have students go through an entire optometry school curriculum for four years? The answer is not so simple.
The ACOE is the accrediting agency for professional optometric degree programs in the United States and Canada. They also oversee optometric residency programs and optometric technician programs.
The ACOE is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). This is important because it allows students to qualify for federal loans, grants, or scholarships.
The ACOE oversees several Primary Accrediting Activities, including:
- Standards: The agency, in collaboration with educational institutions and/or programs, establishes standards.
- Self-study: The institution or program seeking accreditation prepares an in-depth self-evaluation report that measures its performance against the standards established by the agency.
- On-site evaluation: A team of peers selected by the agency reviews the institution or program on-site to determine first-hand if the applicant meets the established standards.
- Decision and publication: Upon being satisfied that the applicant meets its standards, the agency grants accreditation or preaccreditation status and lists the institution or program in an official publication with other similarly accredited or preaccredited institutions or programs. Only public and private non-profit institutions can qualify to award federal student aid based on preaccreditation.
- Monitoring: The agency monitors each accredited institution or program throughout the period of accreditation granted to verify that it continues to meet the accreditors’ standards.
- Reevaluation: The agency periodically reevaluates each institution or program that it lists to ascertain whether continuation of its accredited or preaccredited status is warranted.
The ACOE has two primary designations with criteria for which a potential program must meet: pre-accreditation and accreditation.
Before an optometry school can even begin to recruit or enroll students, “preliminary approval” must be granted. This process begins years before the first day of class. In fact, some would argue that it’s harder to get pre-accreditation status than it is to get accreditation status.
The ACOE describes the preliminary approval designation as follows:
“A pre-accreditation classification granted to a professional optometric degree program that has clearly demonstrated it is developing in accordance with Council standards. The program has approval to begin student recruitment, selection and admissions, and to begin offering the program. The Council shall review the preliminary approval classification annually during the first three academic years of the program through written reports and/or site visits as deemed necessary by the Council. A request for accreditation status shall be made not less than 12 months prior to graduation of the program’s first class. As required by the USDE, the Council will not grant pre-accreditation status to a program for longer than five years.”
In other words, one of the biggest things standing in the way of going from a pre-accredited to an accredited status is the fact that there must be a graduating class. Over the last decade, there have been a handful of optometry programs that have undertaken the task of creating a new school here in the United States. Another way to think about this is that over the last decade, there have been hundreds of optometry students, now doctors, that have made the choice to be a member of an inaugural class.
As a member of the Kentucky College of Optometry’s inaugural class of 2020, I can tell you that there are benefits and downsides. For example, one of the main perks of being in the initial class is the opportunity for a better student-faculty ratio in the first couple of years, but one of the main downsides is the fact that there are no upperclassmen to consult for guidance.
Despite not being accredited, students who attend a pre-accredited program are eligible to apply for travel grants, federal aid, or scholarships that are offered, even if the qualifications say the applicant must attend an accredited school or college of optometry. As a student that was very involved in conferences and school clubs, this was a very important detail to know!
The ACOE describes the designation of accredited as follows:
“A classification granted to an educational program indicating that the program generally meets the standards for accreditation. This classification indicates that the program has no deficiencies or weaknesses that compromise the educational effectiveness of the total program. However, recommendations relating to marginal compliance with certain standards, and suggestions relating to program enhancement may be included in evaluation reports.”
Since students could already do the things that an accredited program could do during pre-accreditation, there isn’t much change to the big picture. With that being said, it is still exciting that there is a newly accredited program in the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry.
Congratulations to the Kentucky College of Optometry!