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Everyone from politicians to provosts seems to have an opinion on how to “fix” accreditation these days. That’s because the wonky accreditor plays a big role in shaping emerging models of higher education and how they are funded.

Paul L. Gaston knows the accreditation process inside and out. A Trustees Professor at Kent State University, Gaston has served as a peer reviewer for regional accrediting agencies and has long been involved in the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

In a recently released book, Gaston tackles big questions about accreditation while also giving plenty of detail about how the agencies work. We caught up with him over email to discuss some of the topics covered in the book, which is titled Higher Education Accreditation: How It’s Changing, Why It Must.

Q. The book says accreditors deserve more credit for the improvements they have made in recent years. What are some of the most promising changes you've seen?

A. Within the past decade, regional accreditors have expanded disclosure of accreditation findings and decisions, improved efficiency through more frequent and more fully automated institutional reporting, clarified the distinction between their priorities on accountability and institutional strengthening, developed less intrusive and more flexible protocols, and implemented improved training for peer evaluators.

Q. Is a general lack of shared language and approaches a problem for regional accreditors? If so, how far should they go in developing common standards?

A. Yes, differences in processes and vocabulary confuse stakeholders, opinion makers and the public. Regional accreditors should come together to identify and defend those regional differences that may have value. But they should resolve trivial differences -- and most of them appear to be trivial -- in favor of a straightforwardly communicated consensus regarding standards, nomenclature and process.

Q. You seem to fall somewhere in the middle on the question of whether regional accreditors are doing enough to encourage innovation. What are examples of where they could do better?

A. Anyone attending a regional accreditation annual meeting would be impressed by the level and extent of innovation presented by member institutions. Accreditors have led a powerful shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning with the result that meaningful assessment has led to substantive improvements in curricula and pedagogy. But regional accreditors could do even more by working together to identify opportunities for becoming more innovative themselves and to agree on reforms that should encourage greater innovation in the academy.

Q. What should regional accreditors do to react to the growing interest in competency-based education and a possible de-emphasis of the credit hour? Should a new, national accreditor for "innovative" institutions fill this role?

A. Adding another accreditor to the mix would risk further inconsistency of practice and public confusion. For the last 30 years, both regional and professional accreditors have emphasized the assessment of educational outcomes (graduation rates, student success) rather than inputs (library holdings, faculty salaries). Thus, they are now well positioned to evaluate new approaches to competency-based education and to guide a deliberate transition away from the credit hour as the dominant measure of academic performance.  

Q. In an era of online learning and branch campuses, does regional accreditation make any sense?

A. Given its experience, its values and its demonstrated commitment to support the evolution of higher education, regional accreditation now makes more sense than ever -- or would, if the different regional accrediting associations would work toward the consensus I mention above. Some sense of regional focus may still be helpful. But unless regional accreditors leverage their influence through a shared effort at clarity and consistency, their current regional “monopolies” should fall under increasing scrutiny.  

Q. Few colleges actually have their accreditation stripped. And, as the City College of San Francisco crisis shows, political pressure is intense when an accreditor tries. Is the "death penalty" a real or empty threat?

A. For institutions that have lost accreditation within the past decade, the threat is very real. In 2012 alone, according to the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, regional accreditors denied accreditation to five institutions, withdrew accreditation from four, issued show cause or probation orders to seven and placed six on notice or warning. But accreditation’s contribution to strengthening higher education arises less from the threat of a “death penalty” than from its emphasis on mission clarification, thorough peer evaluation and constructive recommendations for improvement. 

Q. Many reformers are pushing for accreditors to emphasize student success rates and affordability in their reviews. Is that their job?

A. In part, yes. Accreditors -- regional, professional, national -- have for many years inquired into the success of students and made clear their appropriate expectations for improvement. But as assessment has become more sophisticated and more informative, those expectations should become more explicit. Similarly, because accreditors have always considered how an institution defines its commitment to access, it is appropriate that they now focus more directly on issues of affordability and student debt. Accreditors have an opportunity to redefine this issue objectively and constructively in contrast to characterizations of the issue based largely on anecdote and a highly selective use of information. 

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