ACOE accreditation: Ensuring optometric degree programs make the grade
In its mission statement, the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE) commits to serving the public and the profession of optometry.
The ACOE serves both by applying rigor to the process of accreditation. Ultimately, a quality optometric education translates into provision of quality care to the public Achieving accreditation isn’t easy. The process for a professional optometric degree program to earn initial accreditation can take years. And once an optometry program is accredited, it must undergo ongoing monitoring to ensure it remains in compliance, including filing annual reports on whether it’s meeting its own mission, goals and ACOE Standards.
Developing a new professional optometric degree program is a significant undertaking. The rigor associated with attaining initial accreditation is high in order to ensure educational quality and protect future students.
Some prospective programs make it through the accreditation process. Others decide developing an optometry program is not right for their institution.
“The council members and other ACOE volunteers take their obligation to heart to ensure the quality of the educational system when they perform an accreditation review,” says ACOE Director Stephanie Puljak, who came to ACOE a little over a year ago after working previously as a senior director and chief of staff at Magellan Health in St. Louis, Missouri. “They’re very focused on evaluating all aspects of a program to ensure that the ACOE mission is upheld,” she adds.
Adds Stephanie Messner, O.D., council chair: “Of course, any time an optometry school is developing, the process has to be rigorous because there are so many different elements to development of an educational program, especially a doctoral-level educational program. There are very strict standards that we have to ensure that programs meet in order to receive accreditation. It’s certainly not a rubber-stamp process.”
The road to accreditation for a developing professional optometric degree program—a rigorous multi-step process--can take years. The stages are:
- Stage One designation: After an applicant school submits a letter of intent, feasibility study and application fee, the prospective program is evaluated by the council for consideration of Stage One designation. Upon achieving Stage One designation, a program can remain in this status for up to three years.
- Stage Two designation: To be considered for Stage Two designation, in addition to other criteria, the prospective program must complete a comprehensive self-study addressing its plans to comply with each of the preaccreditation requirements. The council evaluates the program’s submission, which generally involves the program attending a council meeting to address questions from council members. If the council considers the program’s submission as meeting its standards, the program will be granted Stage Two designation. Upon achieving Stage Two designation, a program can remain in this status for up to two years.
- Preaccreditation: The applicant school updates its self-study and hosts an on-site visit with an ACOE evaluation team. The evaluation team’s charge is to validate the information provided in the program’s self-study and assess compliance to the ACOE’s standards. The report produced by the evaluation team is assessed by the council as it determines whether the program’s planning is sufficient for the granting of its preaccreditation status, Preliminary Approval. Only upon being granted Preliminary Approval is the program allowed to recruit and enroll students in the program. Preaccredited schools of optometry have up to five years to achieve an accreditation status.
- Accreditation: Upon the granting of Preliminary Approval and subsequent enrollment of students, the ACOE evaluates the program annually during each academic year. The council conducts a final, on-site evaluation visit to the program for the consideration of an accreditation status during the academic year in which the first class is expected to graduate.
At each stage in the process, the ACOE must give its approval for applicants to continue. The process’ purpose is to make sure only programs with a “high likelihood of successfully attaining accreditation are allowed to enroll students,” Puljak says.
“We’re pretty rigorous upfront,” says Dr. Messner who is also vice president and dean for academic affairs at Illinois College of Optometry.
A total of 25 professional optometric degree programs, 257 optometric residency programs and two optometric technician programs hold an ACOE accreditation status.
Since 2014, when the current multistage process for optometric degree programs went into effect, two degrees programs—the University of Pikeville Kentucky College of Optometry and Midwestern University Chicago College of Optometry—earned Preliminary Approval and, subsequently, were accredited in 2020. Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions College of Optometry (Utah) has earned Stage Two designation.
The accreditation process is one way of maintaining a quality education. Also, every eight years each program must undergo a comprehensive review for its accreditation status to be continued; annually it must submit an annual report which includes reporting on student outcome indicators, such as graduation and attrition rates; and, as needed, programs must submit progress reports to the council associated with any areas where a potential deficiency might exist. Programs may also undergo interim reviews–site visits conducted in the middle of an accreditation cycle that typically focus on specific areas of concern.
“The council wants to make sure each program is meeting its mission, goals and objectives,” Puljak says.
Protecting the integrity of optometric education
ACOE’s mission statement follows:
"The ACOE serves the public and the profession of optometry by establishing, maintaining and applying standards to ensure the academic quality and continuous improvement of optometric education that reflect the contemporary practice of optometry. The scope of the ACOE encompasses professional optometric degree programs, optometric residency programs and optometric technician programs."
The ACOE’s Standards for preaccreditation and accreditation lay out the ACOE’s expectations of programs and assures that programs have and monitor success in achieving their mission, goals, and objectives, that curricula align with the mission, goals, and objectives, that research and scholarly activity are supported, that sufficient and qualified faculty are in place, that facilities, equipment, and appropriate fiscal and administrative capacity exist, and that students/residents are admitted using an impartial process, have intelligence, integrity, and maturity, and are provided adequate support and clinical experiences.
“They cover all of the aspects necessary to have a quality educational program,” says Dr. Messner, who has served on the council for nine years. “Our role as council members is to look at the evidence the programs provide to us and determine whether they are meeting those standards.”
ACOE accreditation carries with it recognition by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation. Department of Education recognition of the ACOE enables optometric degree and residency programs to be eligible for certain federal funds, Puljak says.
The ACOE is comprised primarily of AOA members (9) including:
- Three practicing doctors of optometry.
- Two doctors of optometry who serve on their state boards and are nominated by the Association of Regulatory Boards of Optometry.
- Three doctors of optometry affiliated with optometric educational institutions and are nominated by the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry. One of these doctors must be residency trained or be a faculty member or administrator of an accredited residency.
- One optometric technician representative.
- Two public members (not educators in or members of the profession of optometry).
“Ensuring optometric education programs meet a common set of accreditation standards helps maintain the integrity of the profession and the high quality of care,” Puljak says.
Adds Dr. Messner: “All of the council members are volunteers. Serving on the council is an incredible amount of work, but they’re doing it for the love of the profession.”
In June, the AOA House of Delegates approved changes to the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education that increased the number of members on its board from 11 to 13. The council also announced the passing of the baton to new leadership.
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