• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Accreditation and Excellence

What does accreditation mean?

December 10, 2019

I’m at the Middle States conference in Philadelphia for the next couple of days. Middle States is the regional accreditor for New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and a few others. It’s the only annual conference I attend regularly that includes both community colleges and four-year schools, so it’s a good chance to catch up with friends I don’t otherwise get to see.

Monday’s keynote was by Karen Stout, the president of Achieving the Dream. ATD is dedicated to improving student success rates throughout higher education, though it started with and still largely focuses on community colleges. Stout herself is a former community college president, and a leader in the field. I know her a little and admire her a lot. I’ve seen her speak a number of times over the years, so I expected her to be brilliant and challenging, and she was. She outlined some history of the student success movement, some lessons learned and some common pitfalls, and she challenged the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to “help foster a culture of excellence in teaching and learning on our campuses.”

Which put me in the awkward position of disagreeing with Karen Stout.

I say “awkward” because everything she said was either factually correct or admirably aspirational. Yes, equity of outcomes across racial and economic lines should be central to what we do. She was correct in noting that “our success requires us to be connected to a much larger ecosystem,” and, to her credit, noted that higher ed generally and accreditors specifically have sometimes been too inward-looking. She shared some harrowing statistics on student poverty, particularly among community college students, and noted that moving the needle meaningfully on student outcomes requires sustained focus and leadership commitment for several years before results begin to show. Drawing on her in-the-trenches experience on campus, she noted that the frameworks for improvement have to be specific to “culture and context” or they won’t work. Yes to all of that.

She even challenged the host organization, noting correctly that the word “equity” does not exist in the current standards by which colleges and universities are judged. What she called “equity-minded design” requires resources and focus and should not have to compete with other accreditation requirements. I gave a little cheer for that one.

Still, when it was over, I was left with a nagging question that I just couldn’t shake. She challenged Middle States to foster a culture of excellence on campus through its standards. I don’t think that’s what accreditation is for.

To my mind, accreditation is a seal of approval. It indicates that a college is what it says it is, and that it meets minimum industry standards in key areas. Assessment is a mechanism by which colleges demonstrate that they meet those standards. To put it in terms of grading, accreditation is pass/fail; anything from a C on up is passing. Excellence is an A. I’m in favor of going for the A whenever possible, but with a binary variable like accreditation, a C is passing. Put differently, if we rejigger the grade scale so that anything below an A is failing, we can expect to see a whole lot of institutions start failing. (Either that or a whole lot of grade inflation, which would defeat the purpose.)

That distinction becomes more crucial when we accept her point that higher ed doesn’t work in isolation. She’s right. In the U.S., it works in a political economy marked by increasing polarization of wealth, staggering economic and racial segregation, and an individualistic culture. I smirked wryly when the emcee for the speech put out an open call for good financial officers to go out on review teams. Finances are becoming more important because they’re getting tighter, which is the result of a whole set of political choices made over time. I’m being asked to strive for a culture of excellence in teaching and learning at the same time that I’m being asked to cut another $800,000 from the academic budget this year, having already cut $1 million last year. There’s context, and then there’s context.

As with finances, part of the reason that equity is becoming more important is that it’s becoming harder. We’re trying to create a middle class for a country that no longer wants one. That’s an uphill battle on a good day. Meanwhile, unapologetically elitist institutions that draw more students from the top 1 percent of wealthy families than the bottom 50 percent sail through accreditation unscathed and even praised. A couple of years ago some of them even started advocating for “risk-adjusted” accreditation reviews, which amount to a free pass from external scrutiny for the folks at the top. There’s equity, and then there’s equity.

As the middle of American society gets stretched at both ends, the job of community colleges becomes both more important and more difficult. We’re fighting some strong cultural headwinds. It’s a good fight, and I’m proud to be a part of it in some small way. I’ve had to push folks out of comfort zones into new ways of operating, and have the scars to prove it. Equity-minded design is a battle.

All the more reason to be precise in which institutions are tasked with what. Accreditation isn’t about designating the top performers; it’s about designating the acceptable ones. Pushes for excellence have to come from other places, whether local leadership, political figures, grassroots efforts or groups like ATD. Maybe all of the above.

In the meantime, though, I’d love to see Middle States (and the other regional accreditors) put “equity” in their standards and then judge wealthy schools by that measure. On that, at least, I couldn’t agree more.


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