Learning, Not Wages

Association leader says accreditors could discourage politicians' focus on economic-driven measure of quality if they jointly embraced indicators of student learning.

December 3, 2015
Carol Geary Schneider

The many current critics of higher education accreditation tend to fall into a few categories.

Some -- let's call them the Marco Rubio types -- believe that the existing quality assurance system, through "cartel"-like behavior that protects traditional institutions, unfairly locks out alternative providers that might provide better training and education at a lower cost.

Others -- represented most visibly by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who calls the agencies "watchdogs that don't bark" -- argue that accreditors don't do nearly enough to guard against institutions with poor outcomes and "value" for what they charge. They are among the political leaders and others who have promoted legislation or regulation to create alternative quality assurance agencies or otherwise transform or replace the current accreditation system.

Carol Geary Schneider has little in common with Duncan, and probably couldn't agree less with Rubio's views on higher education -- she refers to their critiques of higher education as a "steady drumbeat of assaults" on accreditation. But the head of the Association of American Colleges & Universities takes her own shots at accrediting agencies in a statement the association published on Wednesday.

In what she calls an "urgent message" to the agencies and to policy makers, Schneider decries as dangerous the policy proposals that political candidates like Rubio and Duncan's U.S. Education Department are putting forward to "fix" accreditation. That's because they define quality and value in higher education heavily if not entirely in terms of economic "return on investment" (job placement, income levels, etc.), almost completely ignoring the "quality learning" that the 1,300 member colleges and universities of Schneider's organization strive to deliver.

Critics have focused on economic outcomes and sought alternatives to accreditation, Schneider said in an interview, in large part because they "perceive a huge vacuum," because they think accreditors have been "asleep on the job when it comes to defining quality" in terms of actual student learning.

"In other words, in part because current quality assurance practices now provide no definition of expected learning outcomes whatsoever, we stand in real danger of creating a new regime that assesses quality only in terms of specific majors’ job placement rates, salaries, loan payment status and other narrowly focused ROI data, including completion rates," Schneider writes in her message.

Unlike many of the other critics of accreditation, Schneider does not consider them do-nothings or patsies. In fact, she notes that the regional agencies have, in general, heavily pressured the institutions they accredit to define for themselves the learning outcomes they seek to develop in their students, and to find ways to measure students' progress on them, to the point that many if not most institutions have now defined them. And there is significant consensus among institutions about what the learning outcomes are, Schneider asserts.

"Research studies commissioned by AAC&U showed a very high degree of congruence on expected learning across all kinds of institutions, large and small, public and private, two-year and four-year," she writes. Many of them use AAC&U's own LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, and others have embraced Lumina Foundation's Degree Qualifications Profile, which Schneider helped write.

"The good news, in other words, is that U.S. higher education does have -- right now -- clear expectations for what counts as quality learning," and those outcomes align with what employers seem to want, too, she writes.

But while accreditors have prodded institutions to define and measure student learning, Schneider writes, what they haven't done, though, and should is to coalesce as a group around those agreed-upon learning outcomes.

"Instead, the regional accreditors and their institutional members are keeping their goals for higher learning to themselves, hidden behind an accreditation smoke screen labeled 'institutional autonomy,'" she says, in which "each institution gets to decide for itself" what an education ought to instill in a graduate.

Schneider's words may sound to many college officials like a call for the sort of "bright line" indicators that federal officials for the last decade have occasionally suggested as cutoffs for performance by colleges on key measures.

Hers is not a proposal for a "one size fits all" approach to student learning, Schneider insists, in which all institutions or programs would be held to the same standards or expectations -- the focus is on ensuring that accreditors are using the same learning indicators for all institutions. A college would show that students had developed written communication skills differently for an engineering program than for an English program, for instance, and proficiency in quantitative literacy would look different for a physics major than for a poetry major.

"But the time is ripe for a national effort, a national investment, to help regional accreditors come together around a common framework of expected and shared learning outcomes -- the outcomes their members themselves have already identified as essential," she said in an interview.

In this scenario, Schneider says, the accreditors as a group would coalesce around a set of outcomes, the institutions they accredit would revamp their curriculums and learning pathways in ways designed to develop those key outcomes and then to assess their students' progress in acquiring them.

"Unless campus leaders and faculty want to hand accreditation over to ROI calculators," she writes, "we -- the higher education community -- must move to persuade our accreditors that we can no longer keep our goals for quality learning hidden from view."

Sympathy and Skepticism

Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges' Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, said in an interview that she appreciated Schneider's critique of the economic-minded way of measuring college outcomes that is currently in vogue, and for championing learning inherent in liberal education, which has too few advocates these days.

She also praised AAC&U for driving the focus on student learning among its many members. "They've done an excellent job of helping those institutions think in more complicated ways about what they want from general education," Brittingham said.

But she questioned whether agreement on what student learning outcomes should be was as widespread among all colleges as Schneider suggests it is among her own members, who choose to belong to it.

"Her organization is made up of people who come because of its focus on student learning, and her organization is about agreement and consensus," Brittingham said. The New England commission accredits institutions with a wide range of orientations and approaches, and many value the independence that Schneider minimizes. "We have the Live Free or Die state [New Hampshire], a state with the Independent Man on the state house [Rhode Island] and the Land of Steady Habits [Connecticut]."

An example of Brittingham's warning can be found in Schneider's own written message, which praises the Western Association of Schools and Colleges for its push for a common set of student learning outcomes -- which many of the leading universities in its membership fought tooth and nail despite embracing similar approaches on their own.

Brittingham also said she doubted whether politicians' embrace of economic-related outcomes would be impeded at all by the sort of full-throated endorsement of student learning outcomes Schneider proposes.

"Even if we all took the LEAP outcomes and said that that's part of all regional accrediting standards, I'm not sure it would matter," she said. "Return on investment measures, even when badly calculated, have appeal because they come up with a number that people think they understand. So we'd still have the problem with policy people looking at simple or simplistic quantitative measures versus things that are harder to measure, even if preferable."


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