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It’s Time to Unleash the Academy’s Watchdogs

How accreditors can drive improvements in equity, quality and students.

January 20, 2021
 
 

As the gatekeepers for federal financial aid, accreditors have three major responsibilities: quality assurance, consumer protection and institutional improvement.

Accreditors are the watchdogs charged ensuring institutional and program quality and rigor. But like real-life watchdogs, which are trained to respond to specific stimuli, accreditors tend to emphasize one responsibility -- compliance -- at the expense of other equally important objectives.

Among the biggest challenges facing accreditors is to prevent the reaccreditation process from becoming a box-checking exercise that fails to hold institutions accountable for quality and outcomes or that doesn’t drive continuous improvements in curriculum, student support services and other areas specified under federal law.

Indeed, institutional and programmatic accreditors are nearly unanimous in their concern about the trend toward standardized “cookie cutter” definitions and approaches to student learning outcomes and the use of “blunt” measures without regard for the rich heterogeneity of the missions, cultures and student populations of institutions and programs.

The relevant federal statute, 34 CFR §602.16(a)(1), requires accreditors “to set forward clear expectations regarding” student success, curriculum, faculty, fiscal and administrative capacity, and other key areas of institutional performance. But given colleges’ and universities’ extraordinary diversity, accreditors rely not on uniform standards but on a combination of evidence, policy and judgment.

The system works well in assessing the qualifications of faculty, since review teams can look at credentials and courses taught. But the system works less well when the primary evidence is the institution’s self-report.

So how can we improve accreditation?

In an important recent essay collection, Accreditation on the Edge, editors Susan D. Phillips and Kevin Kinser argue on behalf of four basic reforms:

1. Make the reaccreditation process as much about improvement as compliance. Instead of simply offering a summative conclusion, accreditation reviews should be formative, identifying challenges and providing guidance so that institutions can address weaknesses and challenges. The visiting committees and the accreditors themselves should actively disseminate best practices and offer practical, evidence-based recommendations for institutional improvement.

2. Strengthen disclosure of information in ways useful to students, parents and the general public. More valuable to the public than institutional self-studies, team reports and action letters is succinct information about cost, retention and graduation rates, time to degree, postgraduation placement rates and earnings, and student and parental debt disaggregated by programs and subgroups and taking into account differences in institutional mission and student bodies.

The College Scorecard makes some of this information available, but accreditors could push for more. It’s time to revisit student-level reporting, so that meaningful comparisons can be made at a granular level and permit the research that can benefit higher ed broadly.

3. Focus on what institutions are doing (and not doing) to improve student learning, completion and postgraduation success. Accreditors need to investigate whether an institution has rigorous expectations for student performance, reliable measures of student learning outcomes and robust, well-utilized student services and support.

4. Make students’ academic experience central to assessing institutional performance and quality. Do students have regular, substantive interactions with faculty? Do students have sufficient access to academic advising? To classes essential for graduation? To high-impact educational practices? The challenge, of course, is to turn such questions into metrics that will not become formulaic over time.

Accreditation on the Edge offers a balanced, yet critical, examination of our current accreditation regime. Contributors to the volume point to many instances where accreditors certified institutions of dubious quality that failed to prepare graduates for gainful employment and distributed cryptic, uninformative, unreliable and meaningless information of limited use to the public.

Are there, then, additional ways to improve accreditation reviews? Let me suggest five.

1. Devote less attention to process and more attention to results. Currently, the review of reports that document process absorbs a great deal of accreditors’ time and energy. It makes more sense to spend more time reviewing results and analyzing the success or failure of various campus student success and quality improvement initiatives.

2. Help accreditors become better classifiers of quality. Quality, we sometimes think, is like Byron “Whizzer” White’s definition of pornography: we know it when we see it. But just as academics develop rubrics to judge the quality of a student essay, we can create metrics that speak to quality.

Accreditors might begin with the factors and conditions that contribute to learning: infrastructure, faculty credentials and library resources; student support, including whether students receive adequate financial aid and have their basic needs met; teaching improvement, evident in the proportion of courses that undergo redesign with the help of instructional designers and the proportion of faculty receiving professional development in pedagogy; and curriculum content and rigor.

Hard as this may be, accreditors need to look more closely at the quality of individual programs. Usually, individual programs only attract accreditors’ attention if they are new or the faculty roster is suspect. If we are genuinely interested in quality, we need to pay attention to the rigor and academic quality of the programs students take.

3. Accreditors should encourage a culture of innovation and experimentation in the realm of student success. Accreditors should celebrate success stories and foster a community of institutions to emulate best practices. Right now, accreditation conferences tend to dwell on compliance issues. More attention should be paid to innovation and quality improvement.

Certainly, some campus innovations will inevitably fail. Accreditors need to let institutions discuss those failures in a nonthreatening way. In other words, colleges and universities should receive regulator credit for being transparent and reflective, not simply for succeeding.

4. Focus attention on what institutions are doing (and not doing) to improve student learning, equity, completion and postgraduation success. Too often, accreditation review only looks at students who graduate successfully. We need to also look more critically at the conditions that cause students to fail courses or drop out or transfer. Institutions might be required to identify significant opportunities for improvement, with improvements in teaching routine and ongoing.

This is not currently the case. Right now, if an institution said that it was going to improve all our learning outcomes by providing pedagogical training to all its faculty, the university wouldn’t get any credit. Nor if the institution improved pass rates for a key class.

Without a doubt, the most significant change that accreditors could make would be to recognize the whole scope of activities that lead to student success as an integrated system, and to allow institutions to innovate in the area of student success without fear of noncompliance.

5. Make the reaccreditation process more student-focused. Currently, accreditors do not, in general, actively monitor student perceptions. Student dissatisfaction only tends to surface if the students lodge formal complaints with the accreditor. But if reaccreditation is to truly serve as a driver of improvement, we need to look more closely at the student experience.

Assessing the student experience is admittedly difficult. It often depends on surveys, which are difficult to mandate, or on focus groups or exit and alumni questionnaires. Our best measure, the National Survey of Student Engagement, is voluntary. Used with care, however, such surveys of student satisfaction can offer insights into aspects of the student experience that deserve greater attention: access to faculty, the quality of teaching and the extent of participation in high-impact educational practices.

We have lived through a period in which a major goal of the U.S. Department of Education was to relax accreditation. Arguing that the existing accreditation system contributed to administrative bloat and inhibited the growth of innovative approaches to certification and credentialing, the Trump administration sought to redefine what counts as a college course and extend financial aid dollars to a wider range of providers with a vocational focus.

It seems certain that the new administration will reverse efforts to reduce standards for reaccreditation. The Biden administration is likely to increase oversight over accreditors, restrict the range of schools authorized to participate in the federal financial aid program and use the accreditation process to force institutions to meet higher standards for quality and outcomes.

This moment of flux offers a chance to ensure that accreditation is an engine that can truly drive improvements in access, admissions, equity, retention and quality.

Isn’t that reaccreditation’s primary purpose?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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