Policy Priorities for Accreditation Put Quality College Learning at Risk: A Message from AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Ensuring the quality of college learning is, beyond doubt, the most important responsibility of higher education accreditation. And yet, almost no one currently thinks that accreditation, especially at the institutional level, is what it should be for twenty-first-century students and institutions of higher education. 

This fall, building on President Obama’s 2013 call to action in his State of the Union address, the Department of Education (ED) announced new initiatives intended, in different ways, to prompt change in higher education’s accreditation practices. It is useful—and potentially alarming—to look closely at the assumptions, problems, and longer-term trends these initiatives highlight. AAC&U member institutions—in tandem with their regional accreditors—should study these proposals and take the lead in repositioning accreditation as a meaningful voice for high-quality college learning while we still can. 

The first Department of Education action seems to be a kind of national “nudge,” or, as Inside Higher Ed noted in its coverage, an effort to “shame” the accreditors into change. ED has organized in one website all the current accreditation standards, setting forth for all to see the chaotic and confusing state of how we “engage” (without actually describing) quality learning and its potential impact on students across many, many different metrics.  

What stands out in this chaotic array of accrediting standards is the disconnect between the relative prestige of regional accreditors, widely viewed as superior in their seal of approval to the national accreditors, and their disconcerting collective silence on what they actually mean by quality learning. As the ED website neutrally affirms for each of the regional accreditors: “No specific outcomes.”

Instead, across all the regional accreditors, quality is ”assured” via a set of procedural requirements: an institution is expected to define its intended learning outcomes, provide evidence (defined and validated by the institution) that students are achieving at least some of those intended outcomes, and show where it is aiming to improve, both in its programs and in its processes. 

The regional accreditors do in different ways require attention to broad learning or general education, which is, for those of us committed to the continued importance of liberal education, a positive. But only the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) provides any specificity on expected student capabilities, requiring that its members address “core competencies, including but not limited to, written and oral communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, and critical thinking.”  (This information, it should be noted, comes from WASC’s own standards, and not from the ED website.)

But WASC stands alone in holding all its members to any specific quality learning expectations. WASC was famously hammered by its most prestigious members for becoming even modestly specific in its expectations for quality learning. The other regional accreditors did not follow suit. Rather, as a group, the regional accreditors continue to defer firmly to institutional mission and autonomy as individual institutions determine—and say very little to the public about—their intended learning outcomes.

To be clear, I know beyond doubt that AAC&U member institutions, for whom regional accreditation is a requirement of membership, do care deeply about quality learning. Across all sectors, our 1,350 member institutions model a restless and heartening effort to provide empowering learning to our students. Those imperatives have sustained AAC&U as a community and fill to overflowing our many quality improvement institutes, meetings, and projects. But equally important—and pertinent to the future of accreditation—the higher education community itself has already reached strong agreement on a set of learning outcomes that nearly all institutions do consider essential. 

Thanks to the insistence by accreditors that each institution should define its own intended learning outcomes, most campuses now have them. Both in 2009 and again this year, research studies commissioned by AAC&U showed a very high degree of congruence on expected learning across all kinds of institutions, large and small, public and private, two-year and four-year.

The results of this inductive analysis could allow accreditors to provide—if they will only seize the opportunity that consensus enables—the needed leadership in defining, clarifying, and advancing quality learning.  

To be specific: across all sectors in nonprofit higher education, collegiate institutions are collectively committed to broad learning across the sciences, humanities, social sciences, arts, world cultures, and US diversity. Institutions from all sectors expect their students to learn to write well, think critically, develop quantitative, information, and communication fluency, engage diverse perspectives, and develop competence in ethical reasoning.  Colleges, universities, and community colleges believe students should prepare for global and US citizenship—with full attention to societal diversity—and they want students to master research skills and learn how to integrate and apply their learning.

All these goals for learning have been captured in AAC&U’s LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes and in Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile. Both documents have been widely used and adapted by institutions across higher education.

The good news, in other words, is that US higher education does have—right now—clear expectations for what counts as quality learning. Moreover, as abundant other research makes clear, employers hold largely the same expectations for quality learning, and see these kinds of learning as critical to career navigation and success. 

To their detriment, however, accreditors’ published quality assurance standards still largely ignore this broad consensus on learning outcomes. Instead, the regional accreditors and their institutional members are keeping their goals for higher learning to themselves, hidden behind an accreditation smokescreen labeled “institutional autonomy.” 

The accreditors are far too timid.  They are poised—with their members—to offer sorely needed leadership in clarifying what counts as quality learning and in advancing practices that help students achieve these consensus learning outcomes. But instead of leading, they remain stoically silent. This silence is damaging—to the accreditors’ future and to higher education’s. 

Specifically, the silence has created a dangerous public vacuum where clear expectations for quality need to be.

The next ED initiative shows us how real those dangers are.

The second initiative the Department of Education is advancing involves legislative action to, among other things, give the department the right to review “student outcomes data” in deciding whether to recognize specific accreditors—regional and national—as appropriate decision makers on which institutions (and students) will have access to federal funds. This request has caused little stir. Given the standoff between President Obama and Congress, no one thinks that legislative action on accreditation recognition is imminent or even likely. 

AAC&U member institutions should pay very close attention to this development, however, and here is why. “Student outcomes” is a term ED and others currently use to cover both learning outcomes (not otherwise defined) and also indicators of economic “return on investment” (ROI). ED is, of course, currently restricted by legislation from giving any attention to evidence of learning. That restraint is not likely to change. 

Across both major political parties, however, there is a high degree of very specific interest in ROI—that is, in tracking whether students get jobs, earn good incomes, pay their loans, and so forth.  So it is entirely possible to envision a state of affairs in which, thanks to federal policy, ROI data will displace evidence of achievement of learning outcomes entirely. 

Economic outcomes data could become the only “student outcomes” data that counts.  ED’s current flirtation through the EQUIP initiative with nontraditional “Quality Assurance Entities” (QAE’s) could end up leading in exactly this direction. Almost perfectly mirroring the current national confusion on which “student outcomes” really matter, the EQUIP criteria for alternative QAE’s are extremely specific on ROI and exceptionally vague on what counts as evidence of quality learning.

Moreover—and this development is already gaining ground in the states—if ROI becomes the default indicator of quality or “value,” we will almost certainly see policy changes that link students’ ROI back to their choice of major, leaving cross-cutting intellectual skills such as critical thinking or ethical reasoning, as well as broad learning across the liberal arts and sciences, entirely out of the quality assurance equation. 

In other words, in part because current quality assurance practices now provide no definition of expected learning outcomes whatsoever, we stand in real danger of creating a new regime that assesses quality only in terms of specific majors’ job placement rates, salaries, loan payment status, and other narrowly focused ROI data, including completion rates. 

This should be unsettling in itself. But educators also should be mindful that these alternative “quality” metrics will come at the expense of the commitment to broad multidisciplinary learning that has been and remains the signature strength of US higher education.

Across all parts of postsecondary education, general education or broad learning is, by design, the way we prepare graduates for knowledgeable citizenship and for their own lives. A decision—already being enacted in many states—to let economic ROI from specific majors completely trump any other evidence of quality learning will take direct aim at Americans’ historic view, going back to Jefferson and Franklin, that higher learning ought to help ensure the fiber of our democracy and prepare citizens with the knowledge and reasoned judgment on which self-governance depends. 

Choosing ROI metrics as our default standard for “value” will drive further erosion in humanities, social sciences, and creative arts disciplines. This is no fantasy; political leaders already are calling for us to educate fewer people in disciplines such as history, philosophy, or anthropology in favor of a new investment in “practical skills” such as welding and coding. But rhetoric is one thing, and rules another. If the federal government begins to collect and prioritize ROI by major field, it will create perverse incentives for colleges to prioritize only fields that pay well. 

Yet, as AAC&U and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems demonstrated in a recent broad-scale salary analysis, it is the much-maligned humanities and social sciences majors that are sending graduates to this nation’s public service sector—education, social service agencies, law, nonprofit organizations, and government itself. What happens when we create accreditation or other federal incentives to de-emphasize studies that demonstrably build commitment to public service and the greater good?

It is scarcely higher education’s fault that Americans pay public service employees less than we pay bankers or engineers. But these wage differentials could soon be higher education’s “value conundrum” nonetheless. 

Using data on the federal scorecard, the Wall Street Journal has already taken leading liberal arts colleges to task for their failure to secure higher wages for their students. This is not a good development for fine institutions that currently send many of their graduates into education, including doctoral studies across all fields, and into public service. 

Will Americans end up shrinking the college curriculum in order to monetize and rate it?

So, where do we go from here? How can we lead at this crossroads moment? To me, this analysis of the current landscape points us in a clear and compelling direction. 

We most assuredly do need new ways of making quality learning intentional and visible. And we may indeed need significant changes in quality assurance approaches.

The higher education community itself, however, must mobilize much more forcefully and in concert to make visible the kind of learning students need for twenty-first-century challenges.

And, unless campus leaders and faculty want to hand accreditation over to ROI calculators, we—the higher education community—must move to persuade our accreditors that we can no longer keep our goals for quality learning hidden from view.  

If educators’ vision and judgment are to guide quality assurance practice, the time to articulate and stand behind essential goals for an empowering college education is now.

See also AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider's Comments on the Senate HELP Committee Paper, "Higher Education Accreditation: Concepts and Proposals." (February 24, 2015)