Is higher ed accreditation needed, or is it just a nuisance? Can there be a balance between accreditation and accountability?
Higher ed accreditation has been in the news since Donald Trump took over as president (and even before), so our top higher-ed consultant decided to take a deeper look at the ins and outs of the higher ed accreditation topic to help readers gain some clarity.
Many higher education leaders see the accreditation process as a nuisance. The requirements can take a lot of faculty and staff time, leaving leaders to wonder whether the intense investment of manpower and resources is truly worth it.
Parents, employers, and funding bodies may see it differently.
The answer depends on how one sees the benefits of higher ed accreditation. In some cases, higher education leaders who see the glass as half-full are using this accreditation process in a positive manner. They use the analysis to identify benchmarks and develop assessment as a continuous improvement process that leads to improved student and faculty outcomes as well as increased recognition for the institution.
A History of Accreditation in Higher Education
Accreditation in higher education began over a century ago in response to public reaction concerning extreme differences between universities and colleges that appeared to be similar on an initial review. To ease these concerns, educators voluntarily organized accrediting bodies so common standards and procedures could be developed, implemented, and used to measure educational quality.
Continued Backlash Against Higher Ed Accreditation
Higher ed accreditation has been in the crosshairs for a while. A 2012 paper from the Heritage Foundation described accreditation as being a barrier to dramatic and lasting higher education reform because it squashes new models in favor of the expensive higher education model. In addition, the report noted that accreditation reviews entire institutions instead of specific courses, thus serving as a poor indicator of skills taught to students. “If higher education is to keep pace with the demands of future economies, the metrics used to value an education must place a greater emphasis on rating and credentialing specific courses and acquired skills, not institutions,” the authors said. “This reform can and should be driven by the private sector so that the skills students receive are the same tools valued by employers. Policymakers, lawmakers, and business leaders need to resist the efforts of existing institutions of higher education to thwart this necessary change.”
Not surprisingly, accreditation, as former Excelsior College President John Ebersole wrote, has become the piñata of the political and policy communities. “Few of those who are critical of it understand the present system, a big part of the problem. However, before any meaningful reform can be undertaken, there needs to be agreement as to whether the present system is ‘too difficult’ or ‘too lax’ and whether the desired end state is a regulatory enforcement body or one of quality assurance.”
Unfortunately, this misinformation has found its way into mainstream media – one report from Vanderbilt University and Boston Consulting Group indicated that institutions spent approximately $3 billion for regional accreditation. These figures are grossly exaggerated. Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, and Mark A. Elgart, founding president and chief executive officer for Advance Education (AdvancEd), suggested that several reports questioning unusually high costs of accreditation costs were significantly inflated as well as irresponsibly misleading since the costs were actually tied to regulations for federal research grants instead of accreditation, and “ignore the reality that accreditation activities are part of regular faculty service and committee work and contribute to the overall improvement of the institution.”
Finding the Balance Between Accreditation and Accountability
Many policymakers — especially Republicans — question whether there is a place for both higher ed accreditation and accountability. However, some organizations see structural gaps in these two topics at the state level. For instance, the Education Commission of the States issued a report in December 2016 that looked at accreditation and accountability. The report’s authors noted that higher education’s regulatory “triad” of state policymakers, accreditation bodies and the federal government is coming under greater scrutiny because of structural weaknesses. The identification of these weaknesses comes at the same time as the emergence of a renewed sense of urgency caused by rocketing tuition prices, increasing student debt, growing concerns about institutional performance and value, and frustrations about waste, fraud, and abuse. ECS’s report noted that the limited attention and lack of comprehensive action have created suboptimal consequences that include:
- Confusion among stakeholders because students, accrediting bodies, and the federal government cannot articulate the specific assurances that a state’s authorization of an institution of higher education provides.
- Internal pressures for states to be less demanding due to the absence of a baseline framework. Thus, a race to the bottom has been created instead of a race to the top.
The paper proposes policy recommendations that bolster the state’s role and, in turn, may increase student outcomes. These recommendations include:
- Establishing upfront due diligence standards
- Requiring continuing oversight and delegation of duties
- Focusing on high-risk and unaccredited institutions
- Developing a coordinated state approach to authorization
- Preventing conflict of interest and regulatory capture
- Ensuring appropriate funding and regulatory expertise
- Fostering and promoting a culture of competent enforcement
- Building a research agenda on state authorization
The Role of Accreditation and Accountability in Continuous Improvement
These concerns and reports suggest that some policymakers and educational leaders are considering throwing the baby out with the bathwater. However, accreditation can have an important supporting role in increasing accountability through developing processes designed to increase student outcomes, improve curriculum, and encourage faculty research so professors are teaching up-to-date information.
Some higher-ed accreditation agencies have already taken that tact. For instance, WSCUC states that the accreditation process is designed to:
- Assure the general public, the educational community, and other organizations and agencies that an accredited institution has been reviewed and meets the commission’s Core Commitments to Institutional Capacity and Educational Effectiveness.
- Promote deep institutional engagement with issues of educational effectiveness and student learning. In addition, the process helps institutions develop and share good practices in assessing and improving the teaching and learning process.
- Develop and apply standards that allow university leaders to review, improve, and revise educational quality and institutional performance.
- Promote an institutional culture of evidence where indicators of performance are regularly developed and then data is collected to inform institutional decision-making, planning, and improvement.
- Develop cost-effective systems of institutional review and evaluation that adapt to institutional context and purposes, built on institutional evidence and rigorous reviews.
- Promote an active interchange of ideas among public and independent institutions.
Innovative accreditation programs, as well as higher education institutions, are increasingly finding ways to incorporate accreditation into a continuous improvement process. For instance, EQUIS-EFMD Quality Improvement System, an international accreditation, quality benchmark, and improvement process, was created to give global business schools a rigorous tool to assess, certify, and improve quality.
This system involves the analysis of data from 10 key areas — governance, programs, students, faculty, research, internationalization, ethics, responsibility, sustainability, and corporate engagement. Most higher education programs that use this system are located in Europe, South America, the South Pacific, and Asia.
Other higher ed accreditation programs are being used for continuous improvement by U.S. institutions. In some cases, these efforts are leading to increased recognition for the university. For example, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) has offered international recognition through accreditation to programs. The AACSB accreditation standards challenge post-secondary educators to pursue excellence and continuous improvement throughout their business programs. Fewer than 5 percent of business schools worldwide have earned this prestigious accreditation.
AACSB’s focus on continuous improvement has led to La Salle University’s School of Business receiving recognition in numerous areas, including:
- Being named to The Princeton Review’s Best 294 Business Schools 2017.
- Having the school’s Part-Time Hybrid MBA included in the S. News and World Report’s 2018 edition of Best Graduate Schools.
- Earning the school’s Master of Business Administration program recognition as the fourth-highest employment rate in the nation in a new report from S. News and World Report. The report found that La Salle’s employment rate for graduates who were three months past graduation was 96.4 percent; in comparison, the average was 88.3 percent among full-time MBAs.
Higher ed accreditation continues to be a hot-button topic in many educational circles. However, this process actually can fit nicely with accountability systems that are operating in many states.
By taking a different approach and embracing higher ed accreditation and accountability, higher education leaders can discover ways to improve their institution’s key measures by developing continuous improvement processes. This approach can help institutions earn accreditation, reach accountability marks mandated by state policymakers, and earn accolades for their commitment to meeting high standards.