administrators

Growing federal role in accreditation will have drawbacks (essay)

For accreditation, 2016 will be remembered as an inflection point, a pivotal moment, a culmination of a multiyear revamping, which means this space is now dominated by two features.

The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Education, has consolidated its authority over accreditation. It is now the major actor directing and leading this work. Second, the public, whether members of the news media, consumer protection advocates, think tanks or employers, is now in agreement that the primary task of accreditation is public accountability. That means accredited status is supposed to be about protecting students -- to serve as a signal that what an institution or program says about itself is reliable, that there are reasonable chances of student success and that students will benefit economically in some way from the educational experience.

Both the strengthened federal oversight and expectations of public accountability have staying power. They are not temporary disruptions. They will remake accreditation for the foreseeable future.

At least some government authority over accreditation and public concern about the space and accountability are not new. What is new and what makes this moment pivotal is the extent to which there is agreement on both the expanded federal role and public accountability. And both are in significant contrast to longstanding practice of accrediting organizations as independent, nongovernmental bodies accustomed to setting their own direction and determining their own accountability.

This disruption can result in serious drawbacks for accreditation and higher education -- and students. Those drawbacks include a loss of responsible independence for both accreditation and the higher education institutions that are accredited. This independence has been essential to the growth and development of U.S. higher education as an outstanding enterprise both when it comes to quality and to access. There are concerns about maintaining academic freedom, so vital to high-quality teaching and research, in the absence of this independence. We have not, in this country, experimented with government and the public determining quality, absent academics themselves. Government calls for standardization in accreditation can, however unintentionally, undermine the valuable variation of types of colleges and universities, reducing options for students.

Consolidation of Federal Oversight

By way of background, “accreditation is broken” has been a federal government mantra for several years now. For the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as the executive branch, messages about perceived deficiencies of accreditation have been driving the push for greater government oversight, whether delivered from a secretary of education describing accreditors as “watchdogs that don’t bite” or an under secretary talking about how accreditors are “asleep at the switch” or a senator maintaining that “too often the accreditation means nothing” or a leading House representative saying accreditors may have to change how they operate in the changing landscape of higher education.

Members of Congress, through various hearings, bills and statements, have called for changes that would focus accreditation more on student learning, create an alternative accreditation system or strengthen government oversight of accreditation, especially in relation to protecting students. Yes, some policy makers are concerned about the department going too far. Crucially, however, the debate is not about what is being done -- greater federal oversight and public accountability -- but who should have the authority to act.

Both Congress and the department are pushing accreditation to focus more intently on both the performance of institutions and the achievement of students. From a federal perspective, “quality” is now about higher graduation rates, less student debt and default, better jobs, and decent earnings. The Education Department’s Transparency Agenda, announced last fall, has become a major vehicle to assert this federal authority. The Agenda ties judgment about whether accreditation is effective to graduation and default information, with the department, for the first time, publishing such data arrayed by accreditors and publishing accreditors’ student achievement standards -- or identifying the absence of such standards. The department also is taking steps to move accreditors toward standardizing the language of accreditation, toward more emphasis on quantitative standards and toward greater transparency about accreditation decisions.

Consistent with the Agenda, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), the federal body tasked with recommending to the secretary of education whether accrediting organizations are to be federally recognized, is now including attention to graduation and default rates as part of its periodic recognition reviews. Committee meetings involve more and more calls for judging accrediting organizations’ fitness for federal recognition based less on how these organizations operate and more on how well their accredited institutions and programs are doing when it comes to graduation and debt. And NACIQI has been clear that, because of the importance to the public and to protecting students, all activities of accrediting organizations now need to be part of the committee’s purview.

Most recently, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin and Brian Schatz introduced a bill on accreditation that would upend the process. The bill captures the major issues and concerns that have been raised by Congress and the department during the past few years, offering remedies driven by expanding federal authority over accreditors and institutions: federally imposed student achievement standards, a federal definition of quality, federal design of how accreditation is to operate and federal requirements that accrediting organizations include considerations of debt, default, affordability and success with Pell Grants as part of their standards. While it is unlikely that anything will happen with this bill during the remainder of the year, it provides a blueprint for change in accreditation for the next Congress and perhaps the foundation for the future reauthorization the Higher Education Act itself.

Moreover, as government plays a more prominent role in accreditation, the process has become important enough to be political. Lawmakers sometimes press individual accrediting organizations to act against specific institutions or to protect certain institutions. Across both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, lawmakers make their own judgments and are public about whether individual institutions are to have accredited status and how well individual accrediting organizations do their jobs. Now, when accrediting organizations go before NACIQI, not only are they concerned about meeting federal law and regulation, but they are also focused on the politics around any of their institutions or programs.

In short, the shift in Washington -- defining quality expectations for accreditors in contrast to accepting how accreditors define quality, intensive and extensive managing of how accreditors are carrying out their work in contrast to leaving this management to the accreditors, seeking to standardize accreditation practice in contrast to the variation in practice that comes with a decentralized accreditation world of 85 different accrediting organizations -- has placed the federal government in a strong oversight role. There is bipartisan support in Congress and across branches of government for this rearrangement of the accreditation space. It is difficult to imagine that the extent to which the federal government influences the activity and direction of accreditation will diminish any time soon, if at all.

Consolidation of Public Expectations

The pressure on accreditation for public accountability has significant staying power in a climate where higher education is both essential and, for many, expensive, even with federal and state assistance. There is a sense of urgency surrounding the need for at least some higher education for individual economic and social well-being as well as the future competitiveness and capacity of society. At the same time, disturbingly, student loan debt now totals more than $1.3 trillion, and in 2016 the average graduate who took out loans to complete a bachelor’s degree owed more than $37,000. In this environment, the public wants accreditation to focus on students gaining a quality education at a manageable financial level.

Accreditation is now the public’s business. On a weekly basis, multiple articles on accreditation appear in the news media, nationally and internationally. Social media reflect this as well, with any article about accreditation, but especially negative news, engaging large numbers of people in a very short period of time. Think tank reports on accreditation are increasing in number, mostly focused on how it needs to change.

From all sources, the focus is on accreditation and whether it is a reliable source of public accountability. Media attention is on default rates as too high and graduation rates as too low, on repeated expressions of employer dissatisfaction with employees’ skills and whether accredited institutions do a good job of preparing workers. In the face of a constant stream of articles highlighting these concerns, the public increasingly questions what accreditation accomplishes and, in particular, whether it is publicly accountable.

Moreover, where judgments about academic quality were once left to accreditors and institutions, technology now enables the news media and the public to make such judgments on their own. Enormous amounts of data on colleges and universities are readily available, from graduation rates to attrition, retention and transfer rates. Multiple data sources such as the federal government’s College Scorecard, College Navigator and Education Trust’s College Results Online are now available to be used by students, families, employers and journalists. Urgency, concern and widespread opportunity to make one’s own judgment about quality have all coalesced to raise questions about why any reliance on accreditation is needed, unless accreditation carries out this public accountability role. Perhaps the most striking example of this development is Google’s recent announcement that it is working with the College Scorecard to present Scorecard data (e.g., graduation rates, earnings, tuition) as part of a display when people search for a particular college or university.

What’s Next?

This, then, is the revamped accreditation space, with the federal government determining the direction of accreditation and a public that is driving accreditation into a predominantly public accountability role.

Will this revamping be successful? Will students be better served? Only if government, the public, higher education and accreditation can strike a balance. Expanded government oversight should be accompanied by acknowledging and respecting the independence, academic judgment and academic leadership long provided by colleges and universities and central to effective higher education and accreditation. Emphasis on public accountability should be accompanied by valuing the role of academics in determining quality. By and large, this has been accomplished through the relationship between accreditation, higher education and government until recently. The way forward needs this same balance.

Judith S. Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a membership association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities.

Image Caption: 
Packed room during June meeting of federal panel that oversees accreditors
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Rethinking leadership approaches after the presidential election (essay)

And given that, Judith S. White asks, can our work as senior leaders in higher education be the same?

Ad keywords: 
Section: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
iStock/akinbostanci
Image Size: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

CUNY's Jay Hershenson Will Return to Campus

Jay Hershenson, senior vice chancellor of the City University of New York, will be leaving the system offices at the end of the year to return to Queens College, a CUNY division that is his alma mater. There he will become vice president for communications and marketing and senior adviser to the president. He is leaving at a time when Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing for major changes in the CUNY system.

Hershenson has been a vice chancellor of the CUNY system for the last 32 years, serving under eight different CUNY chancellors. During that time, he has won numerous awards, many of them for his efforts on behalf of minority and disadvantaged students. Many of his counterparts nationally have said that it is unheard-of for someone to remain so long in such a highly visible senior position at a university system that faces its share of controversies and political challenges. In 2009, he received a joint award for his service to CUNY and state government relations from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the American Association for State Colleges and Universities, and the American Association of Community Colleges. A tribute video released by CUNY at the time is below.

Ad keywords: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Use of Private Student Loans Declines

After reaching a peak of 14 percent in 2008, the number of undergraduates nationwide who used private student loans declined by roughly half by 2012, to 6 percent, according to a new data report from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. During the same time period, the percentage of undergraduates borrowing from the federal government through the Stafford Loan program increased to 40 percent from 35 percent.

"The decline in private education borrowing could potentially be attributed to a number of factors that include a tightening of lending standards; increases in the annual and aggregate unsubsidized Stafford Loan limits; a reduction in the number of private lenders in the education loan market; and the elimination of the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which made private lenders ineligible to make federal loans," the report said.

Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Mary Baldwin alumnae rebel against idea of undergraduate men living on campus

Smart Title: 

Can a women’s college house undergraduate men on campus and still be a women’s college? Many Mary Baldwin alumnae answer no.

ISIS Claims Ohio State Attacker as 'Soldier'

The Islamic State claimed Tuesday that the Ohio State University student who drove his car into a group of pedestrians and then attacked several people with a butcher knife was inspired by the terror organization.

Calling the student "a soldier" of ISIS, the group said that he "carried out the operation in response to calls to target citizens of international coalition countries." The organization, which released the statement through its news service, did not claim to have advance knowledge of the student's actions, though it has repeatedly called on its followers to conduct independent "lone wolf" attacks similar to what took place at Ohio State. The student, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, had posted a message on Facebook prior to the attack, urging the United States "to make peace with 'dawla in al sham,'" referring to the territories controlled by ISIS.

U.S. officials have not confirmed Artan's motive, but Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said Tuesday that the student “may have been motivated by extremism and may have been motivated by a desire to carry out an act of terrorism.”

Artan injured 11 people on Monday before being shot and killed by an Ohio State police officer. The injuries suffered by the victims -- who included undergraduate and graduate students and at least one university staff member -- are believed to not be life threatening, university officials said.

Ad keywords: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Montgomery College President's Spending Scrutinized

DeRionne Pollard, president of Maryland's Montgomery College, since 2013 spent roughly $130,000 in college funds on travel, meals and entertainment, according to a report by a local NBC affiliate. The two-year college, which is located in suburban Washington, also spent $70,000 on private security for Pollard, including an armed driver.

The news report quoted several students at the college who were critical of the spending by Pollard, who receives $281,000 in annual salary. But the college's governing board defending her in a written statement, saying Pollard's travel improved the college's visibility and helped "foster strategic opportunities and partnerships that yield grants, scholarships, employee training agreements and more."

Earlier this month the board's chair, Marsha Suggs Smith, published an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed where she discussed the decision to hire a security detail for Pollard, saying she had been the subject of explicit threats.

Ad keywords: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

College leaders must speak out in the wake of the election (essay)

In the wake of the election, our nation’s colleges and universities are experiencing divisive incidents, which requires higher education leaders to quell tensions by making strong vocal calls for tolerance, inclusivity and free speech. While these waters may be difficult to navigate, I hope these leaders will also take up the difficult challenge of speaking out on our nation’s higher education policy agenda, an issue of central importance to all Americans.

Postsecondary education is crucial to addressing income inequality and sustaining our nation’s commitment to democracy and equal opportunity. A diploma yields a more prosperous future for most Americans, and is a public good for societal stability and prosperity. Despite this, the public has grown increasingly distrustful of higher education, especially given concerns that college costs have risen so rapidly. This is manifest in increased calls for evidence on the earnings impact of a college degree, for greater assessment of student learning outcomes and for information on the uses of large endowments.

Higher education leaders, political leaders and the public have been polarized, but we must work together to understand the issue of increasing income inequality and the role of higher education in addressing it. It is imperative that we forge a new path forward for higher education, but given the election results and today’s constraints on college and university presidents’ speaking out, it is unclear if that will happen.

It is ironic that many of those people affected the most by increasing income inequality, and the fear about the future that it engenders, have chosen Trump for president when his stated policies are unlikely to improve either income inequality or postsecondary educational attainment. In fact, tax cuts, rolling back the Affordable Care Act, reducing regulations, increasing protection and the likely increases in interest rates and inflation will all probably exacerbate income inequality rather than reduce it. Right now, there is no telling exactly what Trump’s policies directly addressing higher education will be, absent any substantive discussion during the campaign.

Higher education leaders have been largely silent about various policies throughout the election, consistent with the fact that the visibility and influence of university and college leaders on national issues has been muted in general in recent years. Leaders of public institutions must walk a fine line, as they are not able to support particular candidates, but the broader absence of these voices from public debate is also a function of the continual demands of fund-raising and the harsh light of social media.

Colleges depend increasingly on donors to meet operating expenses as well as to build endowments and fund capital projects. Many institutions are in perpetual comprehensive campaigns and annual fund drives run by large offices of development professionals. Donors, and alumni in general, are important constituencies with valid institutional interests. Alumni support their colleges in many nonfinancial ways, as well as with gifts that allow colleges and universities to do things they couldn’t otherwise. And with reductions in state appropriations and lower earnings on endowments, donors are more important than ever in supporting higher education expenditures. But relying on donors to do so can have important implications.

If a college president takes a strong position on a national issue, she can cost her institution financial support if alumni who disagree close their checkbooks. Over the last few years, alumni have threatened to withhold support when higher education leaders have made decisions or taken positions with which they disagree. Those include policies on divestment from fossil fuel companies, calls for boycotts of certain speakers and academics, efforts to support student demands for trigger warnings and more aggressive confrontation of racism, and even decisions to cull campus deer to reduce overpopulation. Having had these experiences directly, or having read about them, presidents weigh the value of adding their voices to an important national conversation against their continued ability, and responsibility, to raise funds to support campus programs. They often make the choice not to jeopardize those programs, particularly if the issue is one that is only tangentially related to higher education and to their own institution.

Social media has made that choice even more likely. While it has democratized the influence various constituencies have, it has also significantly complicated these relationships. The positions that college leaders take, or even just the daily decisions they make, on a wide variety of issues are more readily available than in the past and can be more easily and loudly criticized. Responding to questions and challenges about those positions, often publicly and rapidly, is both complex and time consuming. Comments and events that would have passed unnoticed in the past now live on and on -- and often go viral.

That was not always the case. For generations, college and university presidents were intellectual participants in the life of the nation, playing active roles in debates on major issues. Henry Noble MacCracken, Vassar College’s president from 1915 to 1946, was a strong advocate for women’s suffrage and then for isolation in the 1930s. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, played a significant role in the 1933 repeal of Prohibition. Kingman Brewster, Yale University’s president from 1963 to 1977, took a strong public stance against the Vietnam War.

Can we get there again? Now is the time. We need higher education leaders to take positions on the issues. And we need them to address the concerns of those who elected Trump by making higher education more affordable for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, not just for the very poor or the very rich. Our college and university presidents will need the support of their boards of trustees to do so, as well as understanding and trust from their donors, alumni and the public. To influence our nation’s path going forward, both words and actions are needed from the higher education community and its leaders. I hope they will rise to the challenge and that Americans and our president-elect will be listening and watching.

Catharine Hill is managing director at Ithaka S + R and president emerita of Vassar College.

Section: 
Editorial Tags: 
Image Source: 
iStock/cfotart
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Udacity and boot camps offer money-back guarantees for job placement

Section: 
Smart Title: 

Udacity and some boot camps offer money-back guarantees despite state bans on job-placement promises in higher education. But some say the offers are a form of risk sharing worth considering.

Liberty U Hires Former Baylor Athletics Director

Liberty University has hired Ian McCaw -- the former Baylor University athletics director who resigned amid widespread claims that his athletic department mishandled reports of sexual assaults committed by football players -- to serve as its new athletics director, the university announced Monday. The university said it hired McCaw with the goal of one day transforming its football team into a top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision program.

“Ian’s success really speaks for itself,” Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty's president, said in a statement. “You look at what Baylor was able to do during his tenure -- it fits perfectly with where we see our sports programs going. This is an exciting time for us.”

McCaw resigned as athletics director at Baylor in May. His resignation came days after Baylor's Board of Regents fired the university's head football coach and forced out its president following allegations that the world’s largest Baptist university mishandled -- and sought to suppress public discourse about -- reports of sexual assaults committed by its football players and other students. Baylor officials said earlier this month that, in total, 17 women reported 19 sexual or physical assaults involving football players since 2011, and that four of the reports involved gang rapes. Baylor said McCaw was told about at least one of those gang rapes, which involved five football players, but he did not report the allegations to the university's judicial affairs office or anyone else outside the athletic department, as required by federal law.

Last week, Baylor reached an undisclosed settlement with two women who reported being gang raped by football players in 2012. 

"Liberty to me represents a pinnacle of professional and personal opportunity where we’re going to be able to develop champions for Christ, develop a world-class student-athlete experience and achieve victory with integrity," McCaw, echoing comments made by Baylor officials before the sexual assault scandal there came to light, said in a statement."We certainly want Christian student athletes to grow up dreaming of competing for Liberty University.”

When asked why Liberty would hire McCaw after what took place under his watch at Baylor, the university said in an email to Inside Higher Ed that McCaw "is a godly man of excellent character." Regarding Title IX and campus sexual assault, the university added, "We can’t think of an athletic director in the country who is more sensitized to the importance of complying with the intricacies of Title IX than" McCaw.

"There will be time, no doubt, for Ian and his attorneys to address questions about what happened at Baylor, but we don’t intend to litigate those facts with the press," the university said. "If he made any mistakes at Baylor, they appear to be technical and unintentional, out of line with an otherwise distinguished record. We are completely satisfied that Ian McCaw is a good man and a great athletic director."

Ad keywords: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - administrators
Back to Top