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:
- Greater emphasis on mission appropriate measures of student success
- More efforts designed to inform the public about accreditation, its purposes and processes
- More attention to the roles and responsibilities of institutional trustees
- New international partnerships
- An increased focus on competency based education
- 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.
Edu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.
Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.