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Accreditation and Evidence of Learning Looking Forward Even in the Middle of a Pandemic

We now know that living with the Covid-19 pandemic means that much of the teaching and learning at colleges and universities that have been at least partially virtual in fall 2020 will continue into winter and spring 2021, affecting millions of students. As virtual learning is increasingly part of the fabric of higher education, what does this mean for how we view quality, and especially what counts as evidence of what students learn? And, what does this mean for accreditation, still the primary means of assuring quality to which thousands of institutions and programs turn? Can we rely on current practice? Do we need new practices for both online and in-person education? Do we need change in accreditation and assuring quality to be “looking forward”?

Almost all recognized accrediting organizations have longstanding standards and policies to address learning. Evidence of learning is a requirement for institutions and programs in successfully seeking and renewing accredited status. Many accrediting organizations offer workshops and other meetings that focus on practices to assist their accredited institutions and programs in addressing evidence of learning.

Accreditation has provided leadership for the ongoing national discussion of evidence of learning as well as discussions of federal policy and the many conversations sustained by higher education think tanks and foundations that fund higher education. And, accrediting organizations routinely collect a good deal of valuable data on what happens to students, including completion, retention, attrition, graduation, and job placement. They provide a variety of publications.

There is an opportunity for accreditation here. Multiple surveys about the spring 2020 online experience did not have a major focus on accreditation or evidence of learning and quality—the results for students associated with going online. This is in contrast to the amount of attention to date on, for example, mounting online programs, acquiring and using technology, decision-making about tuition levels and grading practices, addressing student engagement, and ensuring faculty and student comfort with online learning. However, as recently reported by Third Way, we are likely to see a greater emphasis on accountability for learning that, if we do not address it, will be reflected in future federal policy.

“Looking forward” when it comes to accreditation and evidence of learning means:

  • Acquiring, and using, more and better data. We still do not have enough information about what individual students learn and can do—their competencies and talents—whether taught online or in-person. This is despite the extensive data already collected by accreditation organizations and state and federal governments. And, we need to especially pay more attention to two longstanding challenges: institutions and programs earning accredited status even as (1) graduation and completion rates are often considered inadequate and (2) a good number of employers consistently reporting dissatisfaction with student skills.
  • Making evidence of learning central to judging quality. For some accrediting organizations, current standards and policies on evidence of learning and the data that are collected can be applied more rigorously, placed at the center of judgments about earning accredited status. This is going beyond having standards and policies; it is about ongoing emphasis, focus, and urgency. Higher education itself has long confused evidence of results with descriptions of intent, process, and resources.
  • Putting evidence of learning upfront to the public. Even when accrediting organizations have evidence, it is not unusual for the public to have trouble finding it.  Accreditor websites and their other information sources need to routinely assure that they are student- and public-friendly by putting the evidence learning of their accredited institutions and programs up front—readily accessible and understandable—and call on institutions and programs to do the same. 

“Looking forward,” even in a pandemic, is about strengthening, refining, and making evidence of learning central to accreditation judgments about quality—more and better data, and an insistence on a more powerful role for evidence of learning in judging quality and informing the public first.

Video Discussion with an Accreditor's Point of View on Assessment

Judith S. Eaton is president emeritus of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. This is the first in a series of articles and videos from accreditation leaders on assessment and learning during the pandemic.

The Next-Gen Assessment multimedia series is coordinated by M. David Miller (University of Florida), Tammie Cumming (Brooklyn College, CUNY), Gladys Palma de Schrynemaker (CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies), and Terrel Rhodes (AAC&U).

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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