Accreditation, Quality and Your Institution

Chet(1)By Dr. Chet Haskell Partner of Edu Alliance Group, Inc. and a member of the Board of Directors. Dr. Haskell has served as President of the Monterey Institute of International Affairs, and Cogswell Polytechnical College. He is an expert in the field of regional and international accreditation.

If you are a leader of a regionally accredited higher education institution, worries about maintaining accreditation is not at the top of the list of things keeping you awake at night.

American college and university leaders are well acquainted with accreditation. Institutional accreditation is the necessary precondition for access to essential student aid and research funding. Programmatic or specialized accreditation has been achieved by many of your academic programs. Some of your faculty members and senior administrators and, occasionally, you yourselves participate in the processes of accreditation, serving on review teams or on accreditation commissions. The routines and reports that are necessary when an institution or a program is reviewed are familiar. Accreditation is a fact of life for you and your institution, as it is with most of American academe.

But are there aspects of accreditation that should concern you? I can suggest a couple.

First, the accreditation game may change. The regulations of the Department of Education are in the hands of a new administration with views that contrast with those of the previous administration. The PROSPER initiative of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce would change many rules and incentives that affect institutions and their accrediting bodies. More importantly, the Congress is inching its way to a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. While accreditation reform is not a major theme in the current discussions, various proposals have been put forward that would have an impact. The decoupling of Title IV financial aid from accreditation is the most radical of these, but others such as allowing regional accreditors to compete or mandating new oversight would alter accreditation in significant ways. And because there are a number of imposed mandates on accreditors, they are in many ways de facto agents of the U.S. government. The present debates may influence any or all of these factors. You can be sure that all the accrediting organizations, both institutional and programmatic, are paying close attention to these proposals.

Second, the accreditors themselves are seeking change. Among the initiatives discussed at the recent CHEA meeting were:

  1. Greater emphasis on mission appropriate measures of student success
  2. More efforts designed to inform the public about accreditation, its purposes and processes
  3. More attention to the roles and responsibilities of institutional trustees
  4. New international partnerships
  5. An increased focus on competency based education
  6. Better recognition of the diversity of student demographics and the role of lifelong learning. These and similar steps will influence institutions in numerous ways.

Third, the stakeholders of your institution understanding of accreditation as it relates to academic quality. Accreditation’s credibility and value may be at risk and thus your institution also may be at risk. Indeed, it can be argued, as reflected in recent polls, that more and more Americans not only do not understand higher education, but also doubt its worth.

This is perilous territory for higher education in general and individual institutions in particular. Such sentiments feed potential Congressional and Federal actions that would damage higher education. Furthermore, every higher education institution is dependent on the support of a wider community of students, parents, alumni, donors and local businesses and governments. Institutions are on unsteady ground if these actors question the very value of your institution.

What this really comes down to is the meaning of quality in higher education. Accreditation is one piece of the quality discussion, but it is not well understood that institutional accreditation is just a threshold, establishing minimum standards and playing a sort of minimalist consumer protection role. This approach is the only way to accommodate the diversity of institutional missions and approaches that characterizes American higher education and gives it much of its energy and creativity. Threshold accreditation is not about excellence or quality improvement.

There is no accepted definition of objective quality for institutions. Even the smallest institutions are too complex for simple definitions of quality. Yet the stakeholders, including the public and governments, are often seeking clear indicators of the expected return on their investments. This creates a vacuum into which the various ranking systems have entered, meeting a broad demand for simple statements of relative quality and reputation.

Only institutions can be responsibility for assuring and improving quality. The best American institutions demonstrate this, despite hardly needing accreditation. The top research universities are accredited only because of the desire to access Federal Title IV and research funding. Yet, they constantly seek excellence in an extremely rigorous and competitive environment. Crucial to their success are internal traditions and processes of accountability and a shared culture of academic freedom, faculty based shared governance, meritocratic selection of students and faculty members and similar characteristics. Accreditation does not force them to do this. They would operate the same way even if accreditation did not exist.

So your institution’s internal mechanisms and processes for addressing questions of quality are critical. This is particularly true because not all goals are convertible to metrics. Making measures of outcomes like employment as a standard is not only misleading, but according to longtime Bard College president, Leon Botstein, “dangerous.” Rigorous and continual internal accountability for defining and assessing quality is one of the most important responsibilities of any institution.

Part of internal quality accountability is being open to the rest of the world, since knowledge is a global commodity. How does your institution define benchmarks and select benchmarking targets? How can you assure you are avoiding the provincialism common to higher education institutions? How can you be certain you are educating students not only for their personal success, but also to fight for the principles of higher education and to confront the anti-intellectualism too common in our country? How do you make sure your students are educated for local engagement and also for life in interconnected national and international environments?

Isolationism is a dead end. Despite current national policies (and the fact that fewer than 40% of American adults even own a passport), successful institutions of the future will be those driven to improve quality for their own purposes and to do so in line with their missions, both local and international. At the same time, success will also depend on the capacity to explain all this to often-skeptical parents, students, donors and governments. Transparency matters, but accessibility that assures understanding matters even more.

Thus, something that should keep you up at night is guaranteeing your institution’s constant concentration on defining, assuring and improving educational quality in your own terms. The accreditation processes should be merely a validation of your own commitment to quality. Faculty and staff members, boards of trustees, alumni and donors and, most important of all, students and parents, need to understand the value of what is being offered and accomplished in your institution.

Of course, academic leaders need to pay attention to changes in the policy and accreditation contexts. However, at the end of the day they should worry most about the quality of their own institutions and programs. Crafting and succoring a culture of quality appropriate to one’s own institution is fundamental. Assuring and improving quality in all aspects of an institution and its programs is essential. After all, there is no market for being mediocre. Rather, the value of academic quality will only increase in a competitive global environment. Accreditation may change in many ways, but you can cope with that. But accreditation is not central to high quality. Only you and your institution are.

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Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

The Challenge to American Institutional Accreditation

Guest Column by Dr. Chester D. Haskell. Academic institutions are at the core of higher education in the United States, whether they be famous research universities, unknown small specialized schools, massive for-profit online institutions, comprehensive public universities, private non-profit liberal arts colleges or emerging innovative providers. Regardless of structure or mission, institutions bring together the people, resources, infrastructure and services necessary for effective higher education. This diverse institutional base provides a range of choices for students as they seek the most appropriate learning environment for their interests and capabilities. At its best, such diversity also promotes experimentation, innovation and quality through competition.

The quest institutional quality has long been a hallmark of U.S. higher education. Beginning more than a century ago, institutions began to collaborate in processes designed to assure institutional quality, processes now known as “accreditation.”

Many other nations have focused on the accreditation of specific programs or degrees (“programmatic accreditation”) as the principal means of assuring academic quality. However, such efforts, while important, neglect the fact that academic programs do not occur in a vacuum: in most cases they have an institutional context. Programmatic accreditation does play a crucial role in American higher education as setting standards for quality in specialized, professional fields, but institutions and institutional accreditation are central.

American institutional accreditation has long been voluntary, non-profit and non-governmental. The six regional institutional accreditors, along with the several national accreditors of specialized institutions, have emphasized decentralization, institutional autonomy and the variety of institutional missions, while ascribing to the values of academic freedom, self-examination, peer review and recognizing that each institution bears the fundamental responsibility for its own academic quality.

This approach is in line with the American tradition of decentralized education. Unlike other nations, the U.S. has not had a strong centralized ministry of education. Elementary and secondary education is mostly a function of state and local governments. The American public universities are almost exclusively supported of state governments. Institutions of higher education, some of which predate the United States itself, have always prized their independence

The fact of institutional heterogeneity presents a challenge to accrediting bodies. Even small institutions are complex and most institutions have multiple programs and degrees in line with their diverse missions. Further, there is no consensus on even how to define quality in institutional terms. Thus, accrediting bodies take a threshold approach, establishing minimum standards and developing processes of assessment that can lead to continual improvement. One result is the sometimes seemingly absurd situation of a minimal quality school being able to legitimately say it has exactly the same accreditation as a nearby world-renowned research university. However, this is the only way to accommodate institution variety. U.S. institutional accreditation is about setting a floor for quality, not about signifying institutional excellence.

The role of the Federal government in the U.S. has been largely concentrated on funding higher education, the most important examples being student financial aid through Title IV of the Higher Education Act and the financing of scientific research. Significantly, the former has been indirect, with most aid going to individual students, while the latter has been distributed on the basis of rigorous competition and peer review.

With the Higher Education Act of 1965, U.S. institutional accreditors took on an additional function. Rather than having the Federal government decide on allocation of financial resources, they became gatekeepers in the government’s stead. Federal financial aid, while going to students, can only be utilized at accredited institutions. Similarly, Federal research funds can only be accessed by institutions with accreditation. Similar prerequisites exist for funding from U.S. states.

The enormous sums involved – more than $150 billion in student aid in 2015, plus another $45 billion in research funding – put accrediting bodies in a difficult position. The threshold approach now has major consequences. Because most institutions are so dependent on access to Federal funding, the loss of accreditation is, in most cases, an institutional death sentence.

Yet, the typical process of self-study and review by volunteer peers is not well suited to a gatekeeper, regulatory function. Further, knowing the impact of a negative decision on an institution often means reviewers usually look for ways to help an institution, not shutter it. This has led to several situations where accreditors failed to oversee properly institutions that were in financial danger, had ineffective programs or, in some cases, were engaged in fraud and abuse.

These failures, especially with regard to for-profit institutions, have been but one source of criticism of the U.S. institutional accreditation system. In addition, student debt loads have exploded, often with students completing their education only to find they lack the skills and credentials for employment sufficient to service and repay their debt. It also is argued that accreditation has little impact on such key metrics as graduation or retention rates. Accreditation processes are seen as too complex, too time consuming, too bureaucratic and too costly, especially for smaller institutions, while the top institutions see little value added by the accreditation process.

These criticisms have become central to a national debate about the purposes of higher education and the most effective ways to assure best use of public funds. Senators as different as Marco Rubio of Florida and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have put forth legislative proposals that would radically change accreditation. Research groups have issued studies calling for new forms of institutional audit based on metrics as the key to Federal funding. Others have argued the accrediting bodies need government funding in order to have the professional staff necessary for effective gatekeeping. Still others have called for the complete decoupling of public financing of higher education from accreditation.

In this context, one of the most knowledgeable and influential observers of accreditation, Judith Eaton, the head of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has warned of coming “disruption” in accreditation. New and different forms of oversight are already in place with the U.S. Department of Education overlaying the independent accrediting bodies. A different definition of quality has emerged, one that the government defines along the lines of metrics such as employability and graduation rates. Accountability is changing to include a range of stakeholders outside higher education. In effect, Eaton argues, the traditional “pillars” of accreditation – self-reporting and peer review – have been determined to be insufficient and changes are coming.

The fact is that a major shift is underway in the United States. Instead of a collegial, peer-based process wherein higher education determines quality for itself, accreditation is becoming a process of compliance wherein stakeholders outside higher education, especially government, defines both quality and whether or not it is attained.

The implications are significant. A greater reliance on objective metrics (or proxies) may lead to less nuance and diminished understanding in the assessment of diverse institutions and programs. Education will be seen more in utilitarian, short-term perspectives (“the goal of education is to get a job”) rather than in life-long, socially constructive ways. Institutions will tend to become more and more alike, as they mold themselves to meet external pressures and incentives. This in turn may lead to less competition, less innovation and, eventually, lower, not higher, quality.

In such circumstances, higher education – both institutions and accreditors — must find ways to balance the legitimate concerns of the public and government with historical norms of institutional autonomy and self-responsibility. Higher education must find ways to convince others of its values and that it is deserving of trust. The alternative will be a diminishing of what has distinguished America’s leadership in higher education.

Chet(1)Dr. Chet Haskell is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council. He is an independent consultant  working with several universities in the United States, Mexico, Holland, Spain and Brazil. He also has been deeply engaged in quality assurance and accreditation  serving as a consultant to the Council of Higher Education Accreditation and the Council on International Quality Group. Dr. Haskell has served as a peer reviewer for the WASC Senior Colleges and University Commission (WSCUC) assessing schools in California, The United Arab Emirates and Mexico. Further he has served on as a member of the international advisory committees for Spain and Madrid.