Two university associations plan to recognize institutions that engage in campuswide activity aimed at assessing and improving student learning, for the sake of internal improvement rather than accountability. The Excellence in Assessment designation is a joint program of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, working in conjunction with the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.
To earn the designation, regionally accredited institutions must show that they have integrated assessment approaches across their campuses, provide evidence of learning outcomes and used the results to guide their decisions and improve student performance; the focus is not on student performance itself. One designation will reward institutions that have recently adopted excellent practices, while another, for "sustained excellence," will identify those that have focused on assessment for years but continued to seek improvements.
Campuses will engage in a self-study and then be reviewed by outside faculty experts.
Much has been made in recent months by higher education and political leaders about how the costs to institutions of federal regulation are driving up the price of colleges and universities.
A new report from Vanderbilt University and the Boston Consulting Group claims that institutions spend about $3 billion for regional accreditation. This figure -- based on approximating accreditation costs as a percentage of the overall costs of regulation at 13 institutions and other industrywide data -- seems designed to reach a similar conclusion as an earlier report released by an influential Senate committee: that the cost of accreditation is unusually high.
The previous report claimed that Vanderbilt University’s College of Art and Sciences devotes more than 5,000 hours annually, at a cost of about $2.92 million, to report to its regional accreditor. The earlier study also included data gathered by Duke University asserting that the cost of accreditation in faculty and staff time over the last few years has been about $1.5 million. This is in addition to the $500,000 the university spends each year to manage required reporting related to academic assessment and other matters.
These costs are significantly inflated and irresponsibly misleading. As multiple news outlets have reported, the vast majority of the costs identified in the previous Vanderbilt study were related to regulations related to federal research grants and not accreditation.
In addition, suggesting, as this report does, that the cost of accreditation includes significant faculty costs ignores the reality that accreditation activities are part of regular faculty service and committee work and contribute to the overall improvement of the institution.
Unlike the many regulatory requirements that institutions have to deal with that are really only reporting, the process of peer review creates significant benefit to institutions to help them study themselves with expert colleagues, plan for the future, and discover and address their blind spots.
There is no doubt that colleges, universities and pre-K-12 institutions suffer from overregulation, but accreditation -- a process that reinforces continuous improvement of institutions -- isn’t the primary culprit. Accrediting agencies in both pre-K-12 and higher education are working to streamline their processes, to lower costs and become more cost-effective.
They are also seeking to become more transparent about decision making, and ensure that the broadest range of stakeholders is included in discussions of academic standards and quality -- quality that translates into real improvements at institutions, not just checklist compliance.
So what is the real cost of accreditation?
As two leaders of accreditation agencies -- one that assures quality in over 34,000 pre-K-12 institutions around the globe and the other that provides regional accreditation for over 800 Southern higher education institutions (including Duke and Vanderbilt) -- we estimate the cost of accreditation to be significantly lower than those reported in the Senate report.
A 2012 doctoral dissertation project conducted by Paul Woolston Jr. at the University of Southern California looked at the average cost for institutions seeking to reaffirm their accreditation through three of the six regional accreditation agencies. Woolston found that the average cost -- including both direct and indirect costs -- was $327,254 over a seven- to 10-year cycle. This means the annual cost to institutions ranges from roughly $32,000 to $41,000 per year depending on the length of the accreditation cycle.
Even at doctorate-granting research universities, the average combined direct and indirect cost over this entire span was about $415,000 for these institutions across three accreditation regions. Hardly the millions of dollars being bandied about by those who would like to see the accreditation process dismantled, and certainly an amount that is manageable enough to budget for over the long term.
Moreover, the cost of accreditation is significantly lower than what those unfamiliar with the process might expect because of the volunteer nature of the work. AdvancED, for example, recently brought a 40-member team to examine evidence of school quality in Hillsborough County, Fla., that included significant on-site time to review information and meet with district and community representatives -- a process similar to that undertaken during accreditation of higher education institutions.
If the cost of one day of that single visit was an outright business charge, at an average rate of $2,500 per consultant, the cost for the four-day visit could have exceeded $400,000. However, AdvancED charged the district $4,000 for the accreditation effort plus individual travel and expenses. Institutions are also charged an annual accreditation fee of $750. For Hillsborough, a district of 245 institutions, the cost per year is $183,750. The process resulted in the development of the district’s new five-year master plan that has received significant buy-in from teachers, staff, students, parents and other stakeholders, whose views were surveyed and taken into account to develop the plan.
The reality is that, typically, accreditation costs are only 5 to 10 percent of the costs of overall investment in institutional research and continuing improvement. This, we believe, is a small cost to pay for a vital service that ensures quality and spurs continuous improvement in all areas that affect student learning.
Why the huge disparities between our view and what some of the recent studies have found? For the most part, they reflect some of the confusion about what accreditors actually do, what is required of institutions and what institutions must do to improve themselves.
Accreditation sets standards for quality in pre-K-12 and higher education institutions, and measures and monitors institutional and student performance through a carefully orchestrated multiyear process of peer review. Teams of experts -- including academic deans, presidents and faculty from peer institutions, and nonacademic experts in particular disciplines -- work closely with institutional officials to investigate every aspect of what the institution does.
The process provides an in-depth view into the vital systems of the institution: the effectiveness of instruction, the availability and strength of student support, how the institution is led and governed, its financial management as well as how it uses data in decision making. Accreditors provide their seal of approval after institutions make needed changes and work closely with college and university leaders to develop an ongoing improvement strategy and demonstrate that they have achieved key standards according to clear indicators of performance, including measures of what students learn.
We believe this work represents a significant investment in the future of colleges and schools. A recent survey by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges suggests that this is so. Only about 16 percent of responding institutions said that accreditation is only or primarily an expense to the institution while the vast majority (over 80 percent) saw accreditation as primarily an investment (42.5 percent) or as both an investment and an expense (41.5 percent).
The survey also showed that institutional leaders believe that about two-thirds of the cost is spent on what the institution needs to invest in to improve, while only one-third of the cost is seen as stemming from the specific requirements of accreditation. Likewise, AdvancED conducts biannual surveys of its institutions. Results consistently show that over 90 percent of institutions find significant value in the accreditation process as a primary driver of continuous improvement and accountability. The cost of accreditation is viewed as minimal in comparison to the benefits and impact.
The cost of improving an institution is the singular responsibility of the institution, and part of its daily work. Exemplar colleges -- and even corporations like IBM -- do not consider the work of improvement to be an onerous task or something that an accrediting body forces them to do but an essential part of their management.
We hope that policy makers will come to recognize that the cost of accreditation is what is required to help guide institutions on their improvement journey; it is not the cost of the journey itself.
Belle S. Wheelan is president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Mark A. Elgart serves as the founding president and chief executive officer for Advance Education (AdvancED).
Eight colleges and universities have been chosen to participate in a pilot project designed to create new ways to reflect students' academic and other performance. The project, led by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education, is funded with nearly $1.3 million from the Lumina Foundation. Eight institutions (see below) that have experimented with competency-based education or other new ways to gauge students' academic progress have committed to develop new comprehensive student records for some or all of their students.
The eight institutions are:
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Quinsigamond Community College
University of Houston-Downtown
University of Maryland University College
University of South Carolina
University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension
Submitted by Paul Fain on October 19, 2015 - 3:00am
The California State University System will make electronic portfolios -- e-portfolios -- available to all its students and graduates, via a three-year agreement the system has signed with Portfolium, a cloud-based platform. The tool will help Cal State students display their academic and professional accomplishments in a digital format, the company said, including ones that aren't easily captured on a traditional résumé or transcript.
The use of digital portfolios is becoming popular. And two higher education groups are exploring how to bulk up the college transcript with more information about student learning and "competencies." At Cal State, more than 80,000 students already have used Portfolium to begin creating digital profiles.
Submitted by Paul Fain on October 16, 2015 - 3:00am
USA Funds, a large nonprofit student loan guarantor, this week announced $3.5 million in funding for four initiatives to measure the value of college. Recipients include the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, which has developed program-level return-on-investment reports, and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, which is comparing degree production to employer demand in specific regions. Projects from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the National Skills Coalition also received grants.
Common threads in the four efforts, USA Funds said in a written statement, are that they are based on the program level -- rather than institutionwide looks -- and they compare the costs of education with returns from employment and wages as well as measures like job satisfaction.
"By supporting these new models in 12 states, we are developing powerful new tools to help students find a more direct path through education and training to rewarding careers," said William Hansen, USA Funds president and CEO.
For a century, the Carnegie Unit -- or credit hour -- served American education very well. Created by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1906, it is now the nearly universal accounting unit for colleges and schools. It brought coherence and common standards to the chaotic 19th-century high school and college curriculum, established a measure for judging student academic progress, and set the requirements for high school graduation and college admission. But today it has grown outdated and less useful.
A time-based standard, one Carnegie Unit (or credit) is awarded for every 120 hours of class time. The foundation translated this into one hour of instruction five days a week for 24 weeks. Students have been expected to take four such courses a year for four years in high school, with a minimum of 14 Carnegie Units required for college admission. The Carnegie Unit perfectly mirrored its times and the design of the nation’s schools.
An industrialized America created schools modeled on the technology of the times: the assembly line. With the Carnegie Unit as a basis, schools nationwide adopted a common process for schooling groups of children, sorted by age for 13 years, 180 days a year in Carnegie unit-length courses. Students progressed according to seat time -- how long they were exposed to teaching.
At colleges and universities across the nation, the Carnegie Unit became more commonly referred to as the credit hour. The common semester-long class became three credit hours. The average four-year degree was earned after completing 120 credit hours. Time and process were fixed, and outcomes of schooling were variable. All students were expected to learn the same things in the same period of time. The Carnegie Unit provided the architecture to make this system work.
But in the United States’ transition from an industrial to an information economy, the Carnegie Unit is becoming obsolete. The information economy focuses on common, fixed outcomes, yet the process and the time necessary to achieve them are variable. The concern in colleges and schools is shifting from teaching to learning -- what students know and can do, not how long they are taught. Education at all levels is becoming more individualized, as students learn different subjects at different rates and learn best using different methods of instruction.
As a result, educational institutions need a new accounting to replace the Carnegie Unit. A 2015 report by the Carnegie Foundation made this clear, stating the Carnegie Unit “sought to standardize students’ exposure to subject material by ensuring they received consistent amounts of instructional time. It was never intended to function as a measure of what students learned.” States have responded by adopting outcome- or learning-based standards for schools. They are now detailing the skills and knowledge students must attain to graduate and implementing testing regimens, such as fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math exams, to assess whether students have met those standards, testing regimens to assess student progress and attainment of outcomes.
This evolution is causing two problems. First, both the industrial and information economy models of education are being imposed on our educational institutions at the same time. At the moment, the effect is more apparent in our schools than colleges, but higher education can expect to face the same challenges. Today, schools and colleges are being required to use the fixed-process, fixed-calendar and Carnegie Unit accounting system of the industrial era. They are also being required to achieve the information economy’s fixed outcomes and follow its testing procedures. The former is true of higher education, and government is increasingly asking colleges and universities for the latter.
Doing both is not possible, by definition. Instead, states need to move consciously and systematically to the information economy’s emerging and increasingly dominant model of education, which will prevail in the future. The Carnegie Unit will pass into history.
The second problem is that the steps states have taken to implement standards, outcomes and associated testing are often incomplete and unfinished. They are at best betas quickly planned and hurriedly implemented, which like all new initiatives demand significant rethinking, redesign and refinement. In the decades to come, today's tests will appear primitive by comparison to the assessment tools that replace them. Think of the earliest cell phones -- they needed development and refinement.
Unfortunately, however, states’ mandates go beyond the capacity and capabilities of their standards, tests, data systems and existing curricula. For example, despite growing state and federal pressure to evaluate faculty and institutions based on student performance, most states do not have the data or data systems to make this possible.
If Information Age accounting systems for education are to work as well as the Carnegie Unit did, the tasks ahead are these:
Define the outcomes or standards students need to achieve to graduate from school and college. While the specific outcomes or standards adopted are likely to vary from state to state, the meaning of each standard or outcome should be common to all states. A current example is coding. Today states, cities and institutions differ profoundly in their requirements in this area, however, it is essential that the meaning of competence in this area be common.
Create curricula that mirror each standard and that permit students to advance according to mastery.
Develop assessments that measure student progress and attainment of standards or outcomes. Over time, build upon current initiatives in analytics and adaptive learning, to embed assessment into curricula to function like a GPS, discovering students’ misunderstandings in real time and providing guidance to get them back on track.
These three key steps will lay the groundwork for the education demanded by the Information Age. They will provide the clarity, specificity, standardization, reliability and adoptability that made the Carnegie Unit successful. It will create an educational accounting system for the information economy that is as strong as the Carnegie Unit was for industrial America.
I do not pretend doing this will be easy or quick. It is nothing less than the reinvention of the American education system. It will require bold institutions to lead, as universities like Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University are doing, to create and test the new models of education for the Information Age. It will take a coalition of state government, educational institutions and professional associations like accreditors to turn the innovations into policy.
We don't have the luxury of turning away from this challenge. Our education system is not working. In contrast to the industrial era, in which national success rested on physical labor and natural resources, information economies require brains and knowledge. The future demands excellent schools and colleges.
Arthur Levine is the president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, N.J. He served as the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, from 1994 to 2006.
Submitted by Paul Fain on October 1, 2015 - 3:00am
Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, and Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, this week introduced a bill that would create a new "outcomes-based" accreditation system. The proposed legislation, which builds on previous ideas from the two senators, would allow alternative education providers -- as well as traditional colleges and universities -- to access federal financial aid programs if they can meet a bar for high student outcomes. Those measures would include student learning, completion and return on investment.
"We need a new system that encourages, rather than hinders, innovation, promotes higher quality and shifts the focus to student success," Bennet said in a written statement. "The alternative outcomes-based process in this bill will help colleges, new models like competency-based education and innovative providers, and is an important step in shifting the current incentives and creating the 21st-century system of higher education we need."
Rubio, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has hammered on the current higher education accreditation system while speaking on the campaign trail, calling it a "cartel." The alternative system he and Bennet proposed, Rubio said, would be based on higher quality standards.
The bill would allow colleges and providers to bypass a wait to receive federal-aid eligibility while they seek accreditation, instead enabling them to enter into contracts with the U.S. Department of Education, but only if the institutions "are generating positive student outcomes."
Submitted by Paul Fain on September 28, 2015 - 3:00am
College Abacus is a free online tool for students and families to compare college pricing -- using net-price estimates taken from colleges and federal databases. The tool, which is owned by ECMC Group, a nonprofit loan guarantor, was one of several outside entities the U.S. Department of Education collaborated with on new data from the White House's College Scorecard, released earlier this month. College Abacus got early access to information from the large data sets that undergird the Scorecard, incorporating it into the online tool.
On Monday the group announced the release of a new tool aimed at low-income students. In addition to net-price comparisons, the new Pell Abacus uses data from the Scorecard to display college-specific information on financial factors such as average loan payments for Pell Grant recipients, the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants and the average monthly income percentage spent on federal loan repayments after college.
“By making this process simple to navigate without tax forms and accessible on mobile phones, we’re removing some of the key barriers preventing low-income students from exploring their full range of college options,” Abigail Seldin, co-founder of College Abacus and vice president of innovation and product management at ECMC Group, said in a written statement.