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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and USA Funds want employers to have more say in the accreditation process, and even to create an alternative, complementary form of quality assurance that would be employer driven.

That was the central finding of a draft report the two groups released Wednesday. They said the goal of their work on accreditation is to help close the so-called skills gap -- millions of jobs that remain unfilled because workers lack proper training and skills.

“We argue that there is a need for a different approach that would establish a voluntary, employer-driven talent supplier recognition and certification system,” the report said, “one that can complement the existing accreditation system and be used to improve government-supported quality assurance systems over time.”

The foundation is a nonprofit affiliate of the chamber, which is a prominent business-oriented advocacy group. USA Funds is a nonprofit student loan guarantor, which recently has focused on college completion.

The new report from the two groups gives some specifics about how the still-nascent ideas might work.

First, it proposes stronger employer involvement in the governance of accrediting agencies, as well as input on the institutional and programmatic reviews that accreditors conduct.

The report also suggests making accredited institutions declare whether workforce readiness or career preparation are part of their mission, and prove how they evaluate success in those areas. And the two groups said accredited colleges and programs should measure and report on performance metrics that are most relevant to employers -- requiring minimum performance levels to remain accredited.

However, the odds of that happening are slim, the report said.

“Employers operate along the periphery of this system and do not play a meaningful role in terms of its governance or operations,” the groups wrote, so “they are seen as one of many stakeholders.”

That’s why plan B is worth pursuing, the report said. Such an employer-led “quality assurance and supplier certification system” would be based on lessons employers have learned in supply chain management, according to the two groups.

The use of business supply chains as a model, and the general corporatespeak of the report, are unlikely to win many allies within traditional higher education. But that doesn't appear to be the groups' goal.

The new quality-assurance review should be layered, the report said. First would come basic requirements -- such as “employability” skills like communication or teamwork. Successive layers for defining quality in worker training would address the needs of particular industries or employers and would look at technical skills and specialized competency and credentialing requirements.

The report said the scope of this work would “include the full range of education and workforce partners that could become suppliers of talent throughout the world, including accredited higher education providers.”

A first place to start, however, could be STEM industries, the report said, such as manufacturing, energy, information technology and health care.

With or Without You

The two groups hosted an event here on Wednesday to discuss the report. The event featured several experts on accreditation, including Peter Ewell, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a research and consulting group, and Ralph Wolff, former president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission.

Ewell welcomed the report but also encouraged the two groups to start small. “Abandoning the established mechanism is probably a mistake.”

Both Ewell and Wolff pointed to the rise of competency-based education as a promising area where employers already are collaborating deeply with colleges.

“Competency-based education is a good vehicle because employers are being drawn in to help design the curriculum,” said Wolff.

Accreditors are facing plenty of criticism these days. Widespread public angst about tuition prices, student debt and the quality of college credentials have led policy makers and the news media to increasingly question the oversight role of accreditors.

The report will add some fuel to that fire, as it signals frustration by employers with the accreditation process.

Even so, the event Wednesday included some self-criticism about the skills gap from business groups. For example, Dane Linn, vice president for the Business Roundtable, said employers often haven’t adequately fleshed out what they want in new hires.

“Our members aren’t particularly clear, oftentimes, about what they need,” said Linn.

Job descriptions often date to the 1980s, panelists said. And they said corporate executives' big ideas about different ways to find skilled hires often don’t translate to action in human resources departments.

Paul Lingenfelter, former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, participated in meetings that led up to the report’s creation. He applauded the effort and said there is room for progress in accreditation.

“It’s a good thing for employers to be explicit about what their needs are,” said Lingenfelter.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation held its annual meeting here this week. Judith Eaton, the group’s president, said employers already work with accreditors, particularly at the programmatic level. But more involvement would be welcome, she said.

“Maybe we need to bring them into the quality conversation in a way we haven’t before,” said Eaton.

It’s not clear, though, whether the chamber’s foundation and USA Funds will accept such an invitation.

“It’s certainly very hard to reform accreditation, to change it,” said Mark Pelesh, executive vice president at USA Funds. “It might be wiser to start something new.”

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