Are you staying informed of the changes in higher ed accreditation and what those changes could mean to your institution and/or your strategic planning? Higher education institutions are increasingly being called to improve the quality of education they provide and to be more innovative. Institutional accreditation serves as a quality control to ensure that institutions are remaining true to their mission and providing academic benefit to students.
The organization that oversees the accrediting effort is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). This Council, which started in 1996, was founded by college presidents, who felt it was the role of the Academy to monitor, regulate, and identify academic quality, institutional improvement, and advancement of student success.
Prior to CHEA, the organization was called the Council on Post-Secondary Accreditation (COPA). This previous council served as the umbrella organization for accreditation to meet many needs associated with this area. This organization dissolved in 1993. The presidents decided to create CHEA to continue the accreditation process.
CHEA’s work is focused on ensuring that colleges and universities can demonstrate quality for the public, students, and families, who want to know the value of higher education. This is done through accreditation, self-study, and peer review.
Overseeing Accrediting Organizations
CHEA monitors the national, regional, and programmatic accrediting organizations. To be recognized by CHEA, each accrediting organization must go through a rigorous process that shows how it meets the CHEA standards. That process can last 1 year to 18 months.
The Council holds accrediting organizations accountable for meeting all CHEA standards of academic quality, accountability, and transparency. Additionally, these organizations need to show fitness as an accrediting organization that promotes academic quality, as well as provides evidence to the public that the recognized accrediting organizations are credible sources of judgment.
CHEA is a non-governmental organization that is focused on academic quality, quality assurance, transparency to the public, and ensuring that institutions and their programs are following their mission. The Council is not part of the U.S. Department of Education, which provides oversight of institutional financial solvency and stability in relation to student financial aid packages and Pell grants. NACIQI, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, is tasked with determining whether accredited higher education institutions can receive federal funding.
CHEA also has an international component, CHEA International Group for Quality (CIQG), which involves international entities that represent higher education abroad. There are currently 20 affiliates. CIQG assesses quality assurance and student learning outcomes in relation to international relationships between higher education institutions.
Changes in Higher Ed Accreditation
There are significant changes in accreditation. COVID-19 has triggered a new normal, causing higher education to think differently about how to provide evidence of academic quality for students who are not necessarily experiencing the traditional collegiate life. Higher education had to make an emergency pivot to a different way of teaching, delivery, assessment and connecting with the higher education community due to the pandemic.
These changes have been critical in higher education. Many colleges and universities were able to make this pivot, and while the pivot may not have been perfect, these institutions focused significant attention on details designed to ensure quality and innovation, factors that are important for accreditation. These institutions were able to experience new levels of creativity while also maintaining quality through distance education and online delivery, while also exploring different methodologies. This has enabled higher education to grow and think differently about the Academy.
Accreditation is Changing to Address Technology Shifts
The pandemic enabled higher education to learn that it could make a quick change that led to effective outcomes through using technology in an efficient way. The institutions are making investments to bring technology up to standard. While higher education may be going back to a residential experience, technology will continue to be a part of the traditional collegiate residential program.
Online education also gave rise to the ed-tech industry and specifically online program managers such as 2U and Coursera. However, in the last Negotiated Rulemaking, there was a move – which was defeated – that would have allowed OPMs to provide more than 50% of a program’s curriculum. This shows the potential type of change that is being driven by technology.
CHEA points out that colleges and universities are ultimately responsible for providing guidance in the curriculum design, which is part of the university’s role of self-regulating of its programs. The OPM becomes a collaborative partner in the use of technology for delivery, but the university’s faculty is still tasked with designing and implementing the actual curriculum to maintain overall quality assurance that the curriculum is sound, effective, applicable, and beneficial to students.
Higher education experienced initial changes in instructional delivery at the start of the pandemic, as many institutions were forced to take instruction online. The Department of Education, under an “emergency” situation, granted “waivers” for online pedagogies, enabling this shift of pedagogies and transformation. However, the Department has not given an extension in relation to accreditation allowances, so institutions will need to continue to improve online delivery from an emergency to full application.
When that happens, there still will be standards related to distance education and online education. Institutions are following those standards and incorporating them into the instructional programs to remain accredited. Hopefully, the technology of distance education will become a mainstay; however, it will not become the only type of instructional delivery. Hybrids that combine face-to-face learning with online learning may become the new norm.
Thanks to COVID, many individuals are realizing that they can get their degree while remaining at home. They can manage the intellectual experience in between the requirements of their daily lives. As time goes on, this should expand to include more opportunities for higher education institutions to provide education to the broader masses, rather than just traditional students who are coming out of high school and want to live on campus.
Higher education institutions aren’t the only ones adjusting. During this past year, adult learners have had time to consider whether they were interested in entering another job market or enrolling in another educational discipline to learn transferable skills. While the economy is coming back, people are not flocking back to their previous jobs because they realize the benefits of remote working or new emerging opportunities.
The focus of education is changing as people want to get higher-paying jobs. This is important when considering that individuals who are earning the current minimum wage must work 70 hours a week to pay for average housing in the current economic climate. The Department of Education has approved double Pell funding for middle-class and low-income families. This decision is a great opportunity for these students to get back into education to prepare for these higher-wage jobs.
Accreditation’s Role in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
With all of the social changes, there will be increased scrutiny on academic performance and meeting accreditation standards. CHEA and the accrediting boards continue to focus on ensuring that institutions execute on their missions and that the standards continue to be monitored and encouraged to grow in diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, WSCUC is adding a DEI standard into its updated standards.
The accreditors recognized by CHEA are giving significant consideration to the implementation of these new standards. DEI has always been part of institutions’ becoming more inviting to more diverse stakeholders through recognizing and serving their needs. What differs now is how to show evidence of DEI. This could be faculty inclusion, retraining of faculty in teaching methods, or campus enrollment practices.
CHEA has a DEI value statement that was posted 4-5 months ago, so accreditors know that this is something that CHEA believes in. Accreditors who want to be accredited by CHEA must have that same value.
Innovation and Accreditation
Innovation is also important at higher education institutions. CHEA was founded by presidents to help higher education institutions self-monitor and regulate their own performance, their own unique mission, vision, and culture — every institution is different. Therefore, there is no one definition of innovation. However, CHEA expects accreditors to encourage institutions to be innovative.
The conversation on how to define innovation is between the higher education institution and the accreditor, whether at the programmatic or institutional level. Innovation is unique to a college or university. It is a new process that brings something new to the university and programs to enhance and advance student performance.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
- Activate your membership to CHEA because CHEA is the behind-the-scenes organization that advocates for the self-regulation of higher education institutions.
- During this time, do not be afraid to reinvent and innovate. The pandemic has offered a time when institutions could reconsider what higher education can encompass. Don’t be afraid to think outside of what the institution previously has been doing to enhance and advance student learning.
- Institutions need to be cognizant of both institutional accreditation and programmatic accreditation. The latter make up the institutional quality assurance.
Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides accreditation consulting for higher ed institutions.