WASHINGTON -- Over the last two years, the U.S. system of higher education accreditation survived what Stanley O. Ikenberry characterized Tuesday as only the latest in a string of "near-death experiences," in which criticism of the industry's self-regulation mechanism escalated to the point that its fundamental nature seemed in doubt. Ikenberry, president emeritus of the University of Illinois, former president of the American Council on Education, and one of higher education's silver-haired eminences, was among the 200 or so accrediting and college officials who gathered here this week for the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's annual meeting. And while Ikenberry, now a Regent professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, cited the history of threats in part to show that accreditation is resilient, he -- like most of the speakers -- argued that higher education leaders should seize this moment to make changes designed to ensure that they continue to control their own destiny.
"I don't sense that we're in a state of crisis," Ikenberry said, noting as several other speakers did that Congress, in renewing the Higher Education Act last summer, had staved off changes proposed by the Bush administration in the the structure and federal oversight of accreditation, designed to more fully shift its purpose from a mechanism for institutional self-improvement to a way of assuring quality control in higher education.
"But it is precisely when you're not [in crisis] that you need to think about change and how to position yourself for the future.... We came through that reasonably well, but also with a wakeup call that before we have to move through another reauthorization, we should be thinking carefully about the question of where we take accreditation."
Those questions -- does higher education's system of peer review need to change, and how? -- are at the core of the accreditation council's CHEA Initiative, and Tuesday's conversation was designed to stimulate ideas about how college leaders and accrediting officials might, on their own, alter the accreditation system, both to improve it and, not unimportantly, to ward off future efforts by politicians and others from outside higher education to impose potentially more severe and less thoughtful changes.
"There is every reason to believe that these issues will be on the agenda" of the Obama administration just as they were of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Ikenberry laid out several ways in which he believed accreditation needed to change to both maintain its utility as a voluntary peer review system and to reassure policy makers that higher education is worthy of taxpayers' investments in it. Foremost among them was the role of accreditors in continuing to prod colleges to measure the learning outcomes of students, which is also the goal of two new organizations that Ikenberry and other college leaders announced at last week's meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
The most provocative vision for changing accreditation put forward at Tuesday's meeting came from Robert C. Dickeson, president emeritus of the University of Northern Colorado. Dickeson's presentation was loaded with irony, in some ways; a position paper he wrote in 2006 as a consultant to Margaret Spellings's Commission on the Future of Higher Education was harshly critical of the current system of accreditation (calling it rife with conflicts of interest and decidedly lacking in transparency) and suggested replacing the regional accrediting agencies with a "national accreditation foundation" that would establish national standards for colleges to meet.
Dickeson's presentation Tuesday acknowledged that there remained legitimate criticisms of accreditation's rigor and agility, noting that many colleges and accrediting agencies still lacked good information about student learning outcomes "40 years after the assessment movement began in higher education."
But Dickeson's primary message this time around was that last year's Higher Education Act renewal amounted to the "most intrusive" incursion by the government in the affairs of colleges "in the history of higher education," given the reams of new regulatory requirements on matters large and small. Given that unwanted intervention, he said, "It should be clear to the accreditation and higher education communities that a new model for quality assurance is needed, if for no other reason than to forestall future federal intrusion that may have even more deleterious effects."
His paper thoughtfully laid out several alternatives to the current system, including replacing it with a mechanism similar to the Federal Accounting Standards Board. But Dickeson ultimately recommended that the Council for Higher Education Accreditation seek a Congressional charter that would strengthen its hand as the central coordinator of accreditation and that a foundation be created to raise money to finance the system (which is now largely paid for by institutional dues).
"The nation is in danger of losing the value of an independent higher education system, replacing it instead with a government bureau bent on the three Rs of rules, regulations and reports," Dickeson said. "What is required is a recalibration that balances institutional interests with public interests. Such a balance can best be obtained by strengthening the accreditation recognition system, preserving the values that matter, and doing so through a thoughtful but aggressive initiative that charters independent accreditation coordination as a national value."
Audience members were intrigued by Dickeson's idea but had numerous questions, many of them skeptical. Michael B. Goldstein, a Washington higher education lawyer, described the prospect of a Congressional charter as a double-edged sword, since "one thing we've all learned ... is the capacity of Congress to end up doing and saying things that none of us intended it to have it do." A Congressional charter would give lawmakers the ability to change that charter to reflect the whims of the moment, arguably giving Congress more direct say over accreditation than it has now, Goldstein said.
Some also questioned the likelihood that the federal government, having shown increased willingness to regulate higher education and increased impatience with colleges for ratcheting up tuition, would be willing to relinquish to a newly chartered CHEA the power to recognize accrediting agencies -- recognition that in turn bestows on colleges accredited by those agencies the stamp of approval to award federal financial aid. Is there any chance that Congress would cede that authority to a higher education entity? Dickeson was asked.
"Somebody needs to assert the authority of higher education quality," Dickeson answered. "If not this group, who?"
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