Accreditation in an Era of Change in Higher Education

Standards and values.

October 22, 2014
This week the regional accreditation agency, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) held one of several regional meetings of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. NEASC holds these periodic regional gatherings to share information with its membership and solicit feedback on the accreditation standards and process. While the average person may find these meetings void of excitement, I find them to be quite invigorating and an important opportunity to provide input in an era of rapid change and increased calls for accountability in higher education.

Value of Accreditation

As my college prepares for its 10-year accreditation visit this spring, I have been leading the self-study process for almost the last year and a half. As onerous and time-consuming as it has been, the process provides an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been as an institution and where we’re heading. This is especially timely for us. Nearly three years ago, I led the strategic planning process where we collected an incredible amount of data about the prior 10 years to inform our direction. Now, nearly two years into the implementation of that strategic plan, we get to conduct a comprehensive assessment of how things are going, where we need to focus, and where we need to evaluate our strategy. Without the self-study report, this type of comprehensive evaluation across all facets of the college would likely not have occurred. The accreditation standards force us to turn every leaf and every rock. In addition, we also get to solicit input and feedback from all college stakeholders on all facets of the enterprise, rather than just the areas that concern specific constituent groups. This, too, is a rare opportunity. While preparing for an accreditation review is not the type of exercise that any administrator looks forward to embarking upon every year, the process and its outcomes have their merits.

Some Questions for Accreditation Bodies to Consider 

This week’s regional accreditation meeting spurred some good conversation. NEASC asked us to review the current accreditation standards to consider what should be added, what should be removed, and provide some feedback on how the process can be improved overall. The current standards, in my opinion, are comprehensive and attempt to be relevant to all types of higher education institutions. There are questions that don’t apply to all and those can be skipped. As I considered the feedback that I wanted to give, they were less specific and more broad. I outline them below.

  1. As degree completion students claim a larger proportion of the higher education market, how do our current accreditation standards account for that reality?
  2. As more institutions rely on increasing proportions of adjunct faculty, how well suited are our standards for evaluating implications for academics and the academic enterprise?
  3. As the demographics of the country and the region change, how well suited are our standards for assessing equity, availability, and effectiveness of services and approaches for a heterogeneous student body?
  4. As community colleges and other institutions move to stackable, latticed, and other models that allow students to obtain workforce experience and return to college for the next credential, how well suited is our current accreditation model for evaluating them?
  5. The recent economic downturn has forced many institutions to become more innovative and entrepreneurial, how adequate are our standards for evaluating the appropriateness, impact and implications of these efforts on academics and the academic enterprise? Are our standards and approach to accreditation deeply rooted in tradition or can they also accommodate for change?

These are my broad questions for NEASC. They don’t imply that they have not been considered already, simply that the reality and context for higher education has changed and is continuing to change. Overall it was a good meeting. There is much value in providing this kind of forum to institutions and it appears NEASC takes our concerns back to the feds and shares our perspectives.

My only disappointment with the meeting was that one of the moderators promised a prize to the person who could find the 6 numbers included across the 11 standards. I found them and it was not easy since one was written out. When I tried to claim my prize, I was told there was no prize that day. So, I am holding on to my find until I can claim the prize. Next time…

This post was originally published at Community College Life.



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