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An almost countless number of ideas for revamping accreditation have pinballed around Washington in recent years, as higher education's system of peer-reviewed institutional accountability has been bashed on the one hand for lax oversight of poor-performing institutions and on the other for overregulation and quashing innovation. Many of the ideas are either impractical (because they would cost too much to replace the volunteer-dependent system that is in place now) or politically unfeasible (because they would entail even more government involvement).

But some consensus has developed around the notion that at a time when many colleges operate nationally, rendering geographic boundaries less meaningful, the existence of seven regional accreditors that operate independently (and sometimes quite differently) makes less and less sense.

Are colleges and universities in Maine and California and Louisiana (and what they do) really so different that they should be judged using different criteria, standards and processes by the accreditors in their regions?

The regional accreditors and many college officials continue to believe that the distinctions are meaningful enough that the agencies should remain independent. But they also recognize that wholesale differences among them are hard to justify -- and Wednesday they took a significant (and probably unprecedented) step toward beginning to eliminate them.

The Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, which has historically coordinated the work of the agencies only loosely, on Wednesday announced that the seven regional bodies would adopt a common set of terms to describe the actions they take toward their member institutions, and that the definitions of those terms would better-align the procedures they use to make those decisions. (They are not yet creating common approaches to what they punish colleges for.)

Under this common framework, it will mean the same thing for a college to receive a warning or be placed on probation or face a "show cause" order whether it is an Oregon university overseen by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities or a New Hampshire community college accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Elizabeth Sibolski, president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the chair of C-RAC, as the regional accreditors' council is known, said the agencies' plan showed that they were paying attention to critics' complaints, that they could work together, and -- perhaps most importantly, given the escalating interest in accreditation from members of Congress -- that they could achieve meaningful reforms without increased regulation by the federal government. 

"There are reasonable criticisms that can be made of the way we’re doing business," Sibolski said. "This is hopefully proof that we will try to react to those criticisms and do something together that will address the issues that are coming up."

Seemingly Simple Definitions

Think tanks and perpetual critics of accreditation like Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni haven't been alone in their complaints about higher ed's quality assurance system. Even defenders of the mainstream like the American Council on Education, in a 2012 report from a panel it convened, said that the "current regional basis of accreditation is probably not the way America would structure the system if starting from scratch."

But since replacing it would be costly and distracting from more pressing problems for colleges and policy makers, better to change the system to make it more effective, the ACE panel argued, by making it more transparent and clear and by "seek[ing] common terminology" and promoting cooperation, among other things.

In taking those and other suggestions to heart, the regional agencies started with arguably the most visible aspect of what accreditors do: the penalties they impose on colleges that they believe have gone or are going off track. Most people (even in higher education, let alone the public at large) ignore accreditation most of the time, but let a local college or university face a major penalty or the loss of access to federal financial aid and watch politicians and others come out of the woodwork (often with lawsuits in hand).

Sibolski, the Middle States president, said it might have seemed like a no-brainer for all of the agencies to adopt a common set of actions; after all, how much difference can there be between probation in Maine and probation in Arkansas?

Some linguistic changes will be required; Middle States, for example, now calls it a "termination of accreditation" when it strips approval from a college, and the new language will require it to say "withdrawal of accreditation" instead.

But it's not just about words, Sibolski said. Under the accord's definition of a "show cause" order -- the point at which a college or university must explain to an agency why it should not have its accreditation terminated withdrawn -- all accrediting commissions are required to give an institution a hearing.

Middle States does not provide such a hearing now. Other agencies will have to make significant changes in their language or their procedures to create the common framework.

"In some cases the language changes necessitate changes in our processes, so there aren't going to be the sorts of variations in some things that there used to be," Sibolski said. "That's probably a good thing, in terms of satisfying institutions that move from region to region and the public."

Paul L. Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State University, whose recent book on accreditation urged the regional agencies to rationalize their "differences in processes and vocabulary [that] confuse stakeholders, opinion makers and the public," applauded the coordinated effort by the accreditors.

"This will go part of the way toward resolving issues about public complexity," Gaston said. "It's an indicator of a good will on their part that really hasn't been evident in the past. Of course it's in part because they are concerned about the possibility [of politically imposed changes]." But regardless of the motivations, he said, it's wise for the accreditors to "relax, if not remove entirely, the elements that make critics refer to them as regional monopolies."

A First Step?

Gaston said he hoped that the regional agencies would follow the agreement about commission actions with others. "Ideally, they would find themselves on the same page in terms of procedures, the order in which they do things, and more, so that anybody who understands the process in Alabama would understand it in Pennsylvania, too."

Sibolski said she was hopeful about that. C-RAC is much more active now than it was even five years ago, and that the "agreement that we were going to do the same thing" went far beyond the regional agencies' previous efforts at collaboration, which involved guidelines on topics like online learning and best practices in certain areas.

Now that the regional agencies "see what's possible when we work together as one," Sibolski said, it seems clear "there are going to be next things. We just have to work out what the nexts are."

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