HE accreditation sector faces pressure to reform

The higher education accreditation community, which confers the quality-assurance seal of approval that allows United States colleges and universities access to billions of dollars of federal student aid, must do a better job of explaining itself to the public if it wants to reverse waning public confidence in higher education.

That was one of the tamer recommendations voiced last week at a conference for accreditors, who are feeling the brunt of growing scepticism about the value of a US college degree. The criticism – which comes from policy-makers, students and parents, employers and other stakeholders – has created what Judith Eaton calls the “new normal” to which accrediting bodies must adapt.

“The new normal’s role is, first of all, a compliance and information-sharing or transparency one,” says Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which convened the two-day conference in Washington. The federal interest in accreditation as compliance deepens an already inherent tension between accreditation’s role both as a gatekeeper to federal funds and in the process of academic quality improvement.

Much of the two-day conference was devoted to how the US accreditation community might respond. It faces several challenges, participants said, one of which is that accreditation is poorly understood by the lay public because the process itself doesn’t lend itself to transparency: it typically takes place behind closed doors, and results are for the most part confidential.

Accreditors also eschew the concept of “bright lines”, such as completion rates or employment outcomes, as performance measures. “The compliance model is kind of dangerous [because] no one is going to take a risk on a student whose profile doesn’t guarantee success,” said James Gaudino, president of Central Washington University. Instead, the accreditation system focuses on continuous improvement and – in what smacks to some critics as akin to cronyism – relies on peer reviews to make judgments.

In a breakout session for accrediting organisations, the conversation gravitated toward the need to educate and update stakeholders on how accreditors are responding to the various concerns, said moderator Mary Ellen Petrisko, past president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, a regional accreditation agency serving the West Coast and Pacific.

“The narrative on what we do as accreditors has not caught up with the reality,” Petrisko said. “The reality is more nuanced, so we need to continue our efforts to communicate that.”

An added complication is that the accreditation community, like US higher education institutions themselves, is diverse and decentralised. CHEA recognises 60 accrediting organisations, each with its own standards.

They include the six major regional associations that collectively accredit most of the nation’s traditional non-profit colleges and universities; national associations such as the Distance Education Accrediting Commission; discipline-focused organisations such as the American Board of Funeral Service Education; and faith-based organisations such as the Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation.

When accreditation "is attacked, we can’t speak with a single voice about what in fact it is”, said Ed Klonoski, president, Charter Oak State College. “I’m arguing we need only one set of standards.”

Martin Kurzweil, a higher education consultant with Ithaka S+R, said accreditation has not kept up with higher education, where only a minority of the student population fits the traditional profile around which accreditation was originally organised and technology has dramatically reshaped what teaching and learning looks like. Accreditation “has not adapted to feeding the needs of this evolving context,” he said. “Accreditation has the potential to do something about it, but it must itself adapt in order to do that.”

Inherently flawed system

Other presenters acknowledged an inherently flawed system. “Accreditation emerged over time and in a way that wasn’t planned very well,” said Pennsylvania State University Professor Kevin Kinser. The current discontent with the process, he told the audience in one breakout session, “may not be your fault but it is definitely your problem”.

Kinser is co-editor of a forthcoming book, Accreditation on the Edge, which outlines what the accreditation sector needs to address if it wants to stay relevant in a fast-changing environment. The title suggests that accreditation may be on the edge of a cliff and about to fall over, or it may be on the cutting edge of transformation, he said.

In some sessions, participants from outside the United States expressed impatience with all the hand-wringing emerging out of the US government’s growing interest in regulating accreditation.

“We had the same debate within Europe,” said Padraig Walsh, chief executive officer at Quality and Qualifications Ireland. “There are tons of other systems out there. They don’t ask, ‘Is there anything we can learn from other parts of the world?’”

During her presentation on issues of public trust and accountability, Andrée Sursock, a senior adviser to the European University Association, made a similar observation, noting that “the international experience in Europe has been used to promote other ways of doing things” but it “didn’t come up at all” in conversations about how the United States might address many of the same issues.

If 47 countries in Europe representing a diversity of policies, laws and languages, were able to corral a consensus about quality assurance, “it should be possible [for the United States] to set a common framework,” said Douglas Blackstone, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in the United Kingdom.

Blackstone’s advice to his US counterparts, for the record: “Rather than wait for the government to tell them what to do, they should seize the moment and reform themselves. Come together and set an agenda.”