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Accreditation's Alchemy Hour: Riding the Wave of Innovation
In 2008, a couple of years after the release of the Spellings Commission report, Doug Lederman, the editor of Inside Higher Ed, paid a visit to the annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission, the nation’s largest regional accrediting association. At the time, the secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, was focusing on the supposed ills of accreditation in framing her agenda for change. In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, she had echoed many of accreditation’s critics in describing a system “largely focused on inputs, more on how many books are in a college library, than whether students can actually understand them.”1
But what Lederman observed at the Higher Learning Commission meeting suggested a different narrative. In his April 15 story, he described having been “struck by the fact that a good half of the hundreds of sessions have embedded in their titles the words ‘student outcomes,’ ‘assessment,’ or ‘accountability.’” In contrast to the familiar “mantra” that higher education pays little attention to measuring student accomplishment, Lederman heard faculty members describing “their various, diverse attempts to figure out what they want their students to learn and to measure how well they have learned it.”
His headline cogently captured the contrast: “Margaret Spellings, Where Are You?”2
I think that if Margaret Spellings or any of the other vocal critics of higher education accreditation would take the time to visit such a meeting today, they would find much they might learn. For that matter, if Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, or Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, could take part in an accreditation review, they might be gratified to find that some of their calls for reform point to changes adopted decades ago.
So I’ll begin by quoting obliquely and incorrectly Winston Churchill’s familiar observation about democracy. Higher education accreditation is a terrible system—but one that happens to be far better than all of the alternatives that have been proposed. Because the strongest defense of accreditation as we know it may lie in current proposals for radical change, we have policy makers and opinion leaders to thank for confirming this Churchillian wisdom.
Having served as a consultant-evaluator for three different regional accrediting associations, I have read with interest over the past fifteen years or so many proposals for demolishing and rebuilding accreditation. The title of a 2007 report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni will give you an idea: Why Accreditation Doesn’t Work and What Policymakers Can Do About It. Even more suggestive is the title of a 2010 publication by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity: The Inmates Running the Asylum?3 At least there’s a question mark.
It should be said that these and several other reports offer some recommendations well worth consideration. In particular, US Accreditation and the Future of Quality Assurance, the constructive 2008 overview by Peter Ewell for the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, and the 2012 publication by the American Council on Education, Assuring Academic Quality in the 21st century: Self-Regulation in a New Era, offer reliable points of reference.4 But if recent pronouncements on accreditation from the White House and from Senator Elizabeth Warren can be taken as indicative, the most strident voices may be exerting a disproportionate influence on the discussion. If the assertiveness of these voices should influence the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the results could be problematical.
Given such comments from opinion leaders known ordinarily for their being well prepared, I thought that the timing might be right for a book that would attempt to bring a certain level of reality to the conversation about accreditation. Rather than an indictment, on the one hand, or a defense, on the other, this would be a substantive overview of how accreditation operates these days: how it is structured, the principles it follows, the protocols it observes, and, as my subtitle suggests, “how it’s changing, and why it must.”5
In the process, I would contest statements that can be disproved and have been authoritatively discredited but that retain nevertheless a kind of political pizzazz, statements we continue to hear being rolled out at opportune moments. I admire economist Paul Krugman’s term: “zombie ideas.” That accreditors focus on “counting the books in the library” may be the most notorious of the zombies now stalking the thoroughfares and side streets of accreditation. They are dead—but just don’t know it.
So my book begins by describing how the mission of higher education accreditation has evolved over the years from a fairly simple charge centered on defining “real” colleges and regulating transfer of credits to what is now a complex, multifaceted obligation for accountability and improvement. Then, unlike some of accreditation’s critics, I give credit to accreditors by describing how the different sectors have reacted to this evolutionary pressure.
In the process, I have discovered that even those who are well informed about accreditation are finding such a book useful. There are some who may know a lot about regional accreditation but know very little about national accreditation, and there are those working in specialized and professional accreditation who may be able to learn something about the differences among the regional accreditors.
As a self-proclaimed friend of higher education accreditation, I want to offer some recommendations related to the title of this panel session, “Accreditation: Riding the Wave of Innovation—or Going Under?” Accreditation can continue to ride the wave of innovation, and by doing so it may be able to avoid the undertow of ill-advised “reforms,” but its “alchemy hour,” that part of a surfer’s day when the waves have the most to offer, will not last for long. The threat of federal intrusion will only increase once debate on Higher Education Act reauthorization begins in earnest. Hence I wanted to recognize what has been accomplished and to draw on what has been proposed by offering suggestions meant to be timely and constructive: responsive to the needs of the academy, sensitive to the interests of the public, and alert to the potential of the accreditation process itself.
I have divided these recommendations into broad categories.
First, I suggest that there needs to be a stronger sense of consensus and alignment among accreditors, particularly within the sectors of accreditation. So many of the differences that distinguish one regional accreditor from another appear to be unimportant, not worth the confusion they can cause or the inefficiencies that they create: differences in vocabulary, differences in process, differences in the protocols that are employed.
A lot could be accomplished if the regional accreditors would get together with one another and decide what’s really important in terms of their differences and what doesn’t matter so much. They might clarify the reasoning behind the differences that appear important to them and defend them while developing a broad common ground otherwise. They could still agree on a shared vocabulary, eliminate traditional but meaningless differences in procedure, and announce actions in terms that anyone could understand.
I’m delighted to acknowledge, by the way, that in April 2014 the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissioners, known as C-RAC, announced that they had reached agreement on several important terms. After meeting with this group in September 2013, I was not at all certain that such progress would be forthcoming.
Such agreement is an important step and may represent a valuable precedent, but there’s much, much more to be done. These days, if you’re looking across the Ohio River from Northern Kentucky University to the University of Cincinnati, or vice-versa, you may find it difficult to understand with any assurance what’s going on in terms of regional accreditation. South of the Ohio, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools governs institutional accreditation. Cross the river and you’re in Higher Learning Commission territory. That shouldn’t matter, or at least not as much as it does currently. Consensus leading to greater alignment would enable higher education accreditation to communicate far more effectively with the public, its stakeholders within the academy, and policy makers.
The same advantages of such discussion might well accrue to specialized accreditation—in two respects. Thanks in part to the work of the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors, there is already considerable agreement among many of the accrediting associations concerning good practice. But establishing broader agreement with regard to review standards, procedures, and actions would enable these accreditors to tell more effectively what is largely a story of commendable innovation and sensitivity to stakeholder and public needs.
There would also be great value in earnest strategic discussion between specialized and regional accreditation. Increased coordination between these sectors, which share a commitment to public accountability and quality improvement, could go a long way toward disarming radical proposals for reform.
In my book, I take up as well the concern for credibility, for it appears that there is some interesting low-hanging fruit that might be harvested with little difficulty. Some of these ideas have been around for a long time. It would now be interesting to see how they might play out. One such idea would be to take a good look at the boards that govern higher education accreditation and at the review teams in order to make them more broadly representative of the different stakeholders in our society. Why don’t we consider inviting more business leaders, military officers, students and student families, or policy makers? By doing so, we could achieve both a genuine expansion of the experience represented on our boards and teams and a higher level of public credibility for the accreditation process. The process could become thereby more visible, more transparent, and more objective.
I think, also, as an aside, that if there were a stronger common platform among the accreditors, one outcome might be a kind of national institute for training consultant-evaluators. Someone with accreditation experience in one region who moves to another might then be able to move into a consultative role there quickly and easily without having to learn a new process and a new vocabulary. Such an institute would also afford an opportunity to bring people together from different regions to talk about shared challenges and ways of addressing them.
While there have been some remarkable increases in efficiency in the accreditation process, I think that there is more that can be done. For one thing, if we were to begin to look at accreditation as a broad community that includes both specialized and regional accreditors, the opportunities for clustering related reviews within specialties and between regional and specialized accreditation should expand considerably. That would serve both the academy and accreditation well.
I also discuss agility and creativity in my book. Again, the examples I cite speak well on the whole for present practice in accreditation. But there remains much that might be done as the landscape of higher education evolves further. New approaches to course delivery, new kinds of providers, new credentials, even new disciplines will test accreditation’s capacity for responding in ways that respect both the continuing demands of accountability and the momentum of change.
In particular, the promise of direct assessment of prior learning, already realized through the initiatives of a few innovative institutions and systems, will challenge but could ultimately strengthen accreditation. Seen from one perspective, direct assessment expresses the acceleration of a shift that accreditation helped initiate, that from the measurement of “inputs” (faculty qualifications, institutional resources, “books in the library”) to assessment and improvement of “outcomes.” MOOCs may already be last year’s headline, but similar efforts to provide less traditional forms of learning delivery and participation will continue to arise.
In this regard, we might consider taking an approach to new providers that would sustain accreditation’s responsibility for public accountability while offering an expedited path to provisional recognition. Enabling new or newly innovative institutions to move temporarily into a “parking lot” could allow them to prove themselves worthy of extended recognition while enjoying in the meantime many of the benefits that follow from accreditation.
Decisiveness and transparency I consider together because they are in a sense two sides of the same coin. Greater decisiveness, defined as the readiness and capacity to act without undue delay in response to findings, will depend on a willingness to scrutinize protracted processes that take too much time and reticular ones that allow multiple opportunities for appeal. As they yield efficiencies, reforms that expedite decision making and disclosure will enhance transparency.
Similarly, if accreditation were able to explain its principles, procedures, and actions in broadly shared terms people could understand, that increase in transparency would be significant in itself. But straightforward language should also encourage decisiveness. I have served on teams that have debated at length how a particular recommendation might be interpreted within and beyond the institution. Broadly shared understanding of what actions signify, regardless of region or discipline, would encourage more direct and less time-consuming decision making.
Next, there is the issue of shared vision. Accreditation may be in a more pivotal position than that of any other sector to warn policy makers that their views of higher education, if we are to remain competitive as a nation, must not become reductive or simplistic. Our leaders must seek to become well informed, even if their sound bites should become less trenchant. They must be led to understand, as Carol Geary Schneider said at the opening session of this annual meeting, that higher education and liberal education are concerned with the same thing: enabling students, all students in all institutions, not only to have successful careers but also to lead satisfying and bountiful lives.
Accreditors have the opportunity to provide such leadership through a shared vision of higher education that is coherent, principled, and forward-looking. By moving beyond periodic responses to confrontations in order to clearly delineate what students need most, accreditors will be better able to clarify the expectations that address student needs. Specifically, as I say in the book, “At a time when other nations are adopting principles of liberal education as a deliberate strategy in seeking to become more competitive, it would be tragic if the United States were to surrender a long-standing advantage through careless concessions to unproved innovation and commercial interests.”6 Advances in efficiency, agility, transparency, and the like will count for little unless they serve a vision that promotes the strengthening of higher education and aligns the values of higher education with the public interest.
What are those values? And what can accreditation do? First, accreditation must support higher education in its generous, constructive, and optimistic view of learning and human potential. The Colorado School of Mines, though a highly focused institution, argues for just such a view: “Few important engineering decisions are purely technical. In our globally interconnected world, professionals must be able to integrate social, cultural, political, economic, ethical, and environmental knowledge into their decisions and designs.”7 Second, accreditation must continue to represent the view that education, properly considered, is about far more than the aggregation of credits to justify the award of a credential. Notwithstanding the increasing variety of delivery modes and providers, genuine education is almost always grounded in curricula with clear learning goals structured to provide a coherent and cumulative experience.
Finally, accreditation must continue to argue for the public good represented by higher education. Few these days question the value of higher education to the individual. We see the earnings comparisons, after all. But we need to do more of what the Higher Learning Commission has done through its revised criteria, which include the expectation that an accredited institution “demonstrates commitment to the public good.” What an institution does must “reflect an understanding that in its educational role the institution services the public, not solely the institution.” Second, an institution must give higher priority to its “educational responsibilities” than to “other purposes, such as generating financial returns for investors . . . or supporting external interests.” Finally, the institution must be able to show evidence of engagement with “its identified external constituencies.”8
As an alumnus of the University of Virginia, I cannot avoid quoting in this context Thomas Jefferson’s “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” In founding the university, he declared it “expedient for promoting the publick happiness” that qualified individuals, regardless of “wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance,” be “rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.”9
I conclude with a reminder that these brief remarks cannot capture the detail, the subtlety, the passion, or the wit of the book available on sale at this conference!
On second thought, a more appropriate conclusion might be one under the aegis of Edward R. Murrow: “This I believe.” I believe the pursuit of a balanced vision by accreditors in the light of the progress they have already made would enable more students to make their way to institutions and programs well suited to their interests and needs. I believe that students given more transparent explanations of cumulative learning expectations would be more likely to persevere to completing a degree or some other credential. I believe more employers would find in graduates the knowledge and skills they seek, and I believe that society would benefit from the civic and cultural education graduates have received along with their career preparation. I believe that a public able to take advantage of an unprecedented variety of approaches to ensuring, documenting, and crediting learning might once again embrace higher education as a public good.
Too much to hope for? Let’s hope not. This is the alchemy hour for higher education accreditation. The waves are high. Let’s hope for a good ride. Hang loose.
1. Margaret Spellings, “An Action Plan for Higher Education,” a speech given at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, September 26, 2006,
2. Doug Lederman, “Margaret Spellings, Where Are You?,” Inside Higher Ed, April 15, 2008, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/04/15/assess# ixzz2xvr5L4e0.
3. American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), Why Accreditation Doesn’t Work and What Policymakers Can Do About It (Washington, DC: ACTA, 2007); Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, and Richard Vedder, The Inmates Running the Asylum? An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation (Washington, DC: Center for College Affordability and Productivity, 2010).
4. Peter Ewell, US Accreditation and the Future of Quality Assurance (Washington, DC: Council on Higher Education Accreditation, 2008); American Council on Education, Assuring Academic Quality in the 21st Century: Self-Regulation in a New Era; A Report of the ACE National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2012).
5. Paul L. Gaston, Higher Education Accreditation: How It’s Changing, Why It Must (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2013).
6. Gaston, Higher Education Accreditation, 186.
7. “Liberal Arts and International Studies,” Colorado Schools of Mines, accessed April 8, 2014, http://inside
8. “Criteria for Accreditation,” Higher Learning Commission, last modified February 2012, accessed April 8, 2014, http://policy.ncahlc.org/Policies/criteria-for-accreditation.html.
9. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, vol. 2, January 1777 to June 1779 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 526–7.
Paul L. Gaston is Trustees Professor at Kent State University. This article was adapted from the author’s address to the 2014 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.