Improving Institutional Accreditation Transparency:

A Call for Change and the Need for Accountability

Table of Contents

 Improving Institutional Accreditation Transparency - A Call for Change and the Need for Accountability - The Change Leader circled with links to accreditation components

Why is accreditation transparency important? 

Institutional accreditation is the gold standard for higher education institutions in the US and globally. Indeed, without accreditation, most employers and other universities and colleges will not accept a degree from a graduate, whether for employment or graduate school. Colleges and universities are only eligible for federal financial aid if accredited by a Department of Education-approved accreditor. And most importantly, they will attract quality faculty or students to deliver degrees only if an institution is accredited.

Accreditors serve as the gatekeepers for over $150 billion in financial aid, and accreditors are increasingly called upon to demonstrate the “value-added” of these funds at the institutions they accredit. However, higher education needs help from an enrollment and perceptions perspective. Since the pandemic (officially) began in March 2020, postsecondary enrollment has declined by over 1.09 million students and undergraduate enrollment is down by over 1.16 million. A recent poll stated that only 42% of college-age students (18-26) believed college is worth the time and money. And this doesn’t consider the “enrollment cliff,” the decline in college-age students that will begin next year. 

With a majority of people questioning the cost and value of degrees and more and more businesses and governments dropping the degree requirement for jobs, accreditation must step up to the challenge of demonstrating that they can assure the quality and integrity of the institutions they accredit, especially when it comes to graduating job-ready graduates

Higher education institutions need change, and currently, an increasingly high number of professional accrediting bodies touch and impact colleges and universities where accreditors have the potential to facilitate or even change higher ed. But this can only happen if college and university decision-makers (1) strive to support and understand how it can improve and strengthen post-secondary education even more than they already do and (2) lobby accreditors for needed changes.

Insufficient Accreditation Transparency in Current Practices

Accreditation is not well understood – it has largely been an “inside baseball” process with institutions self-regulating themselves, setting standards of quality, and acting on institutional reports and team visits without public awareness of the content or context of these standards or actions.  The process is opaque to the public and even to many within accredited institutions.

The linkage of accreditation to Title IV and other forms of federal and state funding has led to increasing regulation of accreditation through federal rulemaking. Yet, there needs to be more demand for accreditation transparency so the public can better understand what changes need to be made. 

There are two areas in which transparency needs improving: first, in the publication of all accrediting team reports and commission actions, and second, in the accreditor requirement that institutions publish completion, placement, and salary data at the program level.

Transparency of Institutional Accreditation Reports

Except for WSCUC, no institutional accreditors make their Commission letters, or Visiting Team reports available on their website. This enables accreditors to maintain a veil of secrecy around the accreditation process and the accountability of their institutions to meet standards.

It also has the negative effect of leaving them open to criticism on many fronts.

Without making evaluation team reports and Commission actions public, it is not possible for anyone – the accrediting community, the policy community, or consumers – to know what areas were addressed, what the evidentiary or data basis was for assuring quality, what recommendations were made, and what actions were taken. For example, how are accreditors responding to institutions with low completion rates? What is an “acceptable level” of completion for the institution? What follow-up is required, and how will accreditors ensure that real action is taken to improve these rates?

We are often told that “this is private information, and its disclosure would hurt the institutions and their students.” The fact that WSCUC and ACCJC, the junior / community college division of WASC, have been making all team reports and Commission decision letters public for over a decade without the sky falling belies this out-of-touch response. We can see no good reason for not disclosing such information.

Previously, Ralph Wolff, former president of WASC, worked with a well-known researcher to learn how accreditors across all regions addressed public institutions with completions rates in the lower quartile. Requests were sent to two institutions in each region requesting a copy of their self-study, accreditation visiting team report, and commission action with the commitment to avoid any specific institutional naming. None of the institutions were willing to share this information, all of which should have been readily available to their constituencies.

One would think there would be enough public support for making these reports public, but herein lies the rub. Accrediting Commissions are comprised of the leadership of the institutions they are accrediting, and there isn’t enough impetus for them to change.

The fact is that the accreditors are too insulated from what the public needs and wants, and it has become a self-perpetuating problem.

One of the “checks and balances” of this peer system is that there are supposed to be public members on each commission. However, a recent study conducted by a reputable higher ed consultant for one of the “regional” accreditors stated that accrediting commissions have difficulty finding public members. This is not true. We know of multiple people who would be happy to donate their time to accreditors and sit on their commissions, giving them an informed and objective viewpoint, but they have never been asked.

Transparency in Student Outcomes

Accreditation requires higher ed institutions to share certain data points, but data sharing is not uniform across accreditors, nor is it clear how accreditors use the available data. For many years, the common barrier was “the data is not available.” This is no longer true, and institutions and their accrediting agencies must catch up to the wealth of data available on completion, employment, and salaries. The Department of Education’s Scorecard now provides institutional and major program-level data. Unemployment and census data are available to determine the employment of graduates as well as salaries over multiple time periods.

In response, accreditors are calling for institutions to disaggregate institutional retention and completion data and analyze differential completion rates for different student groups. As more data becomes available, what are the accreditors’ acceptability standards? What is good enough? What are accreditors expecting if similar institutions have highly variable completion rates for different groups? While recognizing that improving completion takes time, how are accreditors guiding or assisting (or requiring) institutions to improve their results for all groups? Here transparency would be helpful to know as it is hidden from view.

For example, we have seen from data published by The Third Way and by Michael Itzkowitz that show that in a significant number of majors, the five-year post-graduation salaries do not exceed what a high school graduate would have earned, even if a student graduates.  Are accreditors looking at this data?  Without program-level data, students cannot make informed choices about their potential future roles, nor can institutions effectively advise students by providing the information necessary to make such critical decisions.

Many institutions are already doing this, so it is no longer possible to say, “It can’t be done.” For example, the UT system has worked with the Census Bureau to create UT SEEK, giving program-level salary data. Similarly, Georgia State publishes on the websites of each major what graduates are doing and their salaries over time. So too, are several other institutions.

Were accreditors to require this level of transparency at the program level, even allowing for some time for all institutions (and programs) to come into compliance) it would demonstrate their responsiveness to the national concern over value and the lack of information available to students to make informed career choices. Most importantly, this will help students make better decisions and increase institutions’ retention and completion.

Holding Institutions and Accreditors Accountable

Too often, a benchmark for accreditor “toughness” is how many sanctions are applied or institutions accreditation is terminated. In such instances, especially where there are sanctions, complete information needs to be provided, not just an enumeration of what standards were not met (assuming that anyone would know what that meant and what the underlying findings were). More importantly, in most cases, no sanction is applied, but follow-up action is expected of the institution to be reported in a subsequent report or visit. Why aren’t we allowed to know the basis for the actions, prioritized issues, and the standard of improvement?

Many “outsiders” (i.e., politicians) want to hold accreditation bodies accountable for improving accreditation and misguidedly have focused on accreditation staff. Although their intent is admirable, their focus is misplaced. It is the accreditation body commissions, the elected board of peers who function as the de-facto board of directors of the accreditation body, which should be called to task, not the staff. The commissions are responsible for making accreditation decisions and overseeing the staff; if someone is to be held accountable for lack of changes, it should be them.

Summary

Like higher ed, accreditation isn’t entirely transparent, making it impossible to truly understand the differences between these institutional accreditors and the information that they use to hold colleges and universities accountable and come to a data-informed decision on which agencies should stay or what practices should be adopted by those that survive. Only WSCUC makes their institutions’ information public, which leaves higher ed leaders in the dark on other issues like why certain institutions go on probation and for how long, preventing them from improving their processes to avoid probation.

In this era of heightened public scrutiny, accreditors should make all evaluation team reports and decision letters public on their websites to allow the public to see how accreditors function and hold institutions accountable for outcomes and results. Teams can be instructed on managing report writing so that an authentic evaluation occurs. We believe that greater confidence in accreditation can happen when this level of transparency occurs.

College and university leaders can help inspire positive change to address these challenges by supporting and participating in accreditation while putting practices into place on their campuses that will increase their transparency to help the students they are devoted to serving.

About the Authors

Dr. Drumm McNaughton, the host of Changing Higher Ed®, is a consultant to higher ed institutions in the areas of accreditation, governance, strategy and change, and mergers. To learn more, visit The Change Leader’s Consulting Services webpage.

Ralph Wolff, JD, is the former president of WSCUC, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission, and founder and former president of The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Postsecondary Education. He has been a leader in accreditation for over 17 years where he has been an advocate for transparency in accreditation.  

 

 

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