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Dropping a Bomb on Accreditation

March 31, 2006

In its first six months of operation, the Education Department’s higher education commission has been best known -- and most feared in academe -- for some off-handed comments from the panel’s chairman about the need for more evidence that college students are actually learning something. Many academic leaders took that to mean that the panel planned a national standardized test for higher education -- an idea that the chairman, Charles Miller, has repeatedly insisted is a misinterpretation.

Now the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education has a new target: higher education’s longstanding, little understood, and much-maligned system of regional accreditation. And an “issue paper” Miller released Thursday leaves little room for misinterpretation about the perceived problems or the proposed solution: a “national accreditation foundation” that Congress would create to replace the current system.

While Miller himself did not write the often scathing report -- “The Need for Accreditation Reform” was prepared by Robert C. Dickeson, a former vice president at the Lumina Foundation and a consultant to the commission -- its release at his “request” signals a continued desire on the chairman's part to challenge college leaders to rethink how they operate.

That inclination is reflected in several other papers that the commission released Thursday, too. One in particular, titled “Accountability/Assessment,” is a sharply worded laundry list of many problems that Miller and his co-author, Geri H. Malandra, associate vice chancellor for institutional planning at the University of Texas System, say afflict American higher education: a “dangerous complacency about the real quality and impact” of the system, student outcomes  that are of “grave concern,” elitism and a growing chasm between college access for low- and higher income students, and a “gaping information void” about colleges’ performance, to name just a few.

Another paper prepared by Miller fleshes out an idea he has mentioned earlier of transforming existing Education Department databases into a much more robust public source of comprehensive information about colleges, which could be used, among other purposes, to help students and parents find the right college for themselves.

As envisioned in the memo, the searchable database would contain a broad range of data about colleges' enrollments, prices and student outcomes, and individual students (or others assessing the quality of colleges) could weight the measures and characteristics that matter most to them, to essentially create their own individual "ranking." The report has more in mind than just a tool to help consumers choose widely, though: As with most of the commission's (or at least Miller's) ideas, an underlying goal of the proposed database, he says, would be to "hold postsecondary institutions accountable for their performance."

Which leads back to the paper on accreditation. The subject gets a separate treatment of its own, Dickeson’s paper suggests, because accreditation is the primary system responsible for gauging the performance and ensuring the success of higher education in the United States. If the quality of American higher education is slipping, as the commission's other papers argue, then accreditation must share the blame.

The system performs two main purposes, the paper says: helping institutions assess themselves and improve, and protecting consumers and the public interest. And it is falling short on the latter, the paper says.

“Any serious analysis of accreditation as it is currently practiced results in the unmistakable conclusion that institutional purposes, rather than public purposes, predominate,” it says. “A system that is created, maintained, paid for and governed by institutions is necessarily more likely to look out for institutional interests.” Among the problems it cites with regional accreditation are:

  • A lack of transparency. “The public’s need for critical information is not being met,” because the accrediting process itself is too secretive and accrediting groups don’t require enough transparency on the part of the colleges they oversee. The dearth of information about colleges' performance with a public hungry for comparable information about institutions' quality has made U.S. News & World Report's seriously imperfect rankings a de facto accreditation system.
  • Low and lax standards. “Accreditation currently settles for meeting minimal standards,” as “nearly all institutions have it, very few lose it, and thus its meaning and legitimacy suffer.”
  • Outdated regionalization. “Technology has rendered the quaint juridictional approach to accreditation obsolete.... More and more students are crossing state lines to complete their education and enrolling in multiple institutions, often simultaneously.”

"The reform of accreditation in the United States is necessary because accreditation has become too important to remain the exclusive prerogative of the very institutions being accredited," the paper asserts.  Calling for "more integrity in the process," it suggests an alternative: the National Accreditation Foundation, "a private-public partnership," governed by a board of college officials, members of the public, business leaders, and state and federal policy makers, that would "create and maintain quality standards" for the nation's colleges, oversee "new accreditation processes" that are more efficient and effective, share information about accreditation decisions with the public, and take on the responsibility for determining institutions' eligibility for federal financial aid, among other roles.
 
Reaction to the Plan

Not surprisingly, the commission's paper provoked strong reactions from accreditors and other observers of the process.

Judith P. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a national group that oversees all of the country's college accreditors, said she believed the report went beyond the "reform" of its title to "revolution." 

"The notion that accreditation needs to be reformed " -- which she said she embraces -- has certainly been out there, and the commission members have been saying that they want more about outcomes,  more consistency across regions, more transparency," Eaton said. "I'm just not sure you need to go this far to get those things."

Eaton, who got her first look at the report Thursday afternoon and is scheduled to testify at the commission's next meeting next week in Indianapolis, said she was open to the ideas in it but had many questions. She was particularly troubled, she said, by the idea of a federal role in the proposed new system, given the long and honored history of decentralization in American higher education.

"Higher education in the U.S. is successful in a lot of ways," and much of that success can be attributed to the academic freedom that institutions and faculty members have had to experiment and innovate," she said. "Why in the face of the success of U.S. higher ed -- and accreditation is part of that success -- would you want to put together something that cuts at the very features that have created what is good about us?" She said the proposed structure sounded a bit uncomfortably like a "national ministry of academic quality."

The heads of several regional accrediting groups were troubled by many aspects of the paper, from its tone ("intemperate," said Jean Avnet Morse, executive director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education) to its conclusions about their quality and the viability of a national accrediting system.

"Accreditation has evolved and changed over many decades to meet changing needs, and it will continue to do so," said Morse. "This is a process that has proved its worth over a long period of time."

She also questioned the logic of saying that accreditation standards must be low since few institutions lose accreditation. "The fact that few institutions lose accreditation is actually the result of a very labor intensive monitoring and improvment system by accreditors. We catch problems early and require reports, visits and the imposition of a gradual set of sanctions (such as warning and probation) before removing accreditation," she said. "Another reason is that there are very extensive requirements -- applied over years -- before an institution achieves accreditation. Therefore, it is in good shape and we should be able to catch problems before they become serious."

Ralph Wolff, executive director of the Western Association of Colleges and Schools, said that regional accreditors have reformed themselves over the last decade, making standards tougher and more relevant to student learning. Some of the criticisms in the report might have been valid 10 years ago, but aren't today, he said.

For example, during that time, standards have been added in his association (and similar reforms have taken place elsewhere) that require colleges to provide specific evidence that they measure student learning, and take steps to improve programs based on the results of these measurements. "I don't think there's any question but that we've made our processes more rigorous," he said.

A national accrediting system would fail to reflect regional differences, said Barbara Brittingham, director of the Commission on Colleges of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. She noted, for example, that the Western group deals with mammoth systems of large public universities, while her group reviews progress and many small liberal arts colleges. "There are regional differences," she said. "We have a different mix."

Brittingham also said that the regional organization keeps educators close to the process. Hundreds of college officials work together to draft standards and to periodically review them, and they are thus better able to understand them and more likely to take them seriously. Such intensity would be hard on a national level, she said.

At the same time, she said it was wrong to imply that the regional system resulted in a lack of national standards. On more than 95 percent of decisions, she said, the regionals would evaluate institutions in the same way. That's because the regional directors talk regularly, most visiting teams have at least one out-of-region member, and broad consensuses exist on many issues. Even on distance education, she said, the regional groups have worked together to deal with the issue and there is no crisis that needs to be solved.

Wolff of the Western group agreed, and questioned the presumption that a national system would be better. "Nobody asks us why we have 50 states," he said.

Longtime observers of higher education who are familiar with but not part of the accreditation system had a range of reactions to the commission's statement. Jack H. Schuster, a professor of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate University who is visiting this year at the University of Haifa, said he shared Eaton's concern about the possible federalization, or at least nationalization, of quality control, which he called a "frightening prospect".

Schuster, who wrote in an e-mail messge that he has "spent a career criticizing aspects of American higher education (hoping thereby to suggest viable means for improvements)," said he nonetheless considers American higher education to be the world's best, not "despite the absence of centrally imposed standards and 'quality control' " but arguably, "because of the rough-and-tumble scramble among an amazing array of institutions: public and independent, religious and secular, complex and more focused, prosperous and vulnerable."

He adeded: "The idea of creating an all-knowing policeman for the purpose of applying acceptable quality-control standards on this admittedly messy congregation is frightening -- not because it would ill serve the interests of the institutions themselves, but precisely because such a centralized regulatory system would do a great disservice to the public interest."

Robert H. Atwell, a former president of the American Council on Education who more than a decade ago led an effort to create national accreditation standards, said he largely sympathized with the views expressed in the commission's paper, although he said he would lean more toward putting more power in the hands of an independent group (like Eaton's CHEA) than in creating a quasi-governmental agency.

But he warned commission leaders that in challenging the regional accreditation system, they had potentially taken on a major battle.

"These regions are very powerful when they decide to go to war," because "the institutions they accredit become their supporters," Atwell said. If the commission pushes a fight, "there's going to be blood all over the floor."

 

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