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The Accreditation Race

Arkansas’s new public online university chooses national accreditor over its regional agency, raising questions about pace, prestige and the state of quality assurance.

September 8, 2017
 

When the University of Arkansas System envisioned creating the online-only institution eVersity in 2014, it planned to follow the well-worn path trodden by other public higher education systems in launching fully online institutions: building on the accreditation of the system’s other universities before seeking independent approval from the regional accreditor.

But come January, eVersity will seek approval from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission -- a national body that overwhelmingly accredits for-profit and nonprofit online institutions -- rather than the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits all other public institutions in Arkansas and many nonprofit colleges in 18 other states.

One of the primary factors shaping eVersity’s decision is speed. The regional accreditor told the university that it could take roughly six years for HLC to award its stamp of approval, while DEAC -- assuming it affirms eVersity in January -- will have acted in just under two years. Institutional accreditation is required for eVersity students to gain access to federal financial aid, and to ensure that their credentials are valued by employers and others.

“I want to do what is in the best interest of my students,” said Michael Moore, the chief academic and operating officer of eVersity. “That means getting accreditation as quickly as I possibly can from an agency with a strong reputation.”

The Arkansas university’s decision highlights several key issues swirling around the quality-assurance process in higher education, touching on questions of pace, prestige and flexibility.

  • Is the Higher Learning Commission’s six-year timetable for accrediting eVersity evidence that -- as some critics suggest -- many accrediting agencies aren’t adapting to the needs of today’s fast-changing higher education ecosystem?
  • By casting its lot with the distance education accreditor, is eVersity choosing speed over stature in a way that, some observers warn, will ultimately hurt its reputation and the value of its students’ credentials?
  • What are the implications of the institution’s choice for the conversations unfolding in Washington and elsewhere about the viability of the current accreditation system and the needs for alternatives?

The Context and the Choice

In 2011, the then governor of Arkansas, Mike Beebe, called on his state to address a problem -- the low number of Arkansans with bachelor’s degrees. At the time, Arkansas was ranked 49th in the country for educational attainment, and an estimated 358,000 Arkansans had started college but not finished with a degree.

Beebe set down a challenge -- to double the number of Arkansans with degrees by 2025. The University of Arkansas System put forward a solution in March 2014: an online-only institution to be called eVersity.

The first classes at eVersity began in January 2016. To date it has received just over 1,300 applications for its five courses of study (in business, health-care management, information technology, criminal justice and university studies). When eVersity starts its new term this month, it expects to have about 750 students enrolled, short of the 2,000 it originally projected for its second year. But Moore said he is pleased with the progress that has been made, and noted that the pace of applications and enrollments is accelerating. “Those enrollment numbers were a best guess and, in hindsight, a little too optimistic,” he said. “We are probably a year away from hitting numbers in that range.”

Moore said he is hopeful that accreditation will make recruitment easier. Originally, eVersity anticipated seeking accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission, which approves the University of Arkansas’s other two- and four-year institutions, and started down that path. Initial conversations with the agency were positive, said Moore, and the officials from HLC were supportive of eVersity’s mission.

But ultimately, Moore said, he chose to work with DEAC for two reasons -- speed and expertise. “Timing was certainly a part of our consideration, but a more important factor was that DEAC is the only accreditor exclusively focused on online institutions,” said Moore.

The HLC website says its process typically takes “a minimum of five years and often up to nine years” from the first step through the final decision on initial accreditation. Moore said HLC officials told him the process would likely take six years.

Steve Kauffman, the public information officer for HLC, said that it was typical for institutions to be in a candidacy stage for four years before a final review, but the HLC website advises it is possible for institutions to apply for early accreditation in the second year of their candidacy.

DEAC, on the other hand, says its process takes between two and five years. Asked why the HLC process takes so much longer than DEAC’s, Kauffman said the HLC has additional requirements beyond DEAC’s.

Leah Matthews, executive director and chief executive officer of the distance education accreditor, said it is “very rare” for institutions to receive accreditation in under two years. She noted, however, that the speed of the process is largely determined by the readiness of the institution when it applies. Matthews said that eVersity was “very motivated” and did “extensive work” prior to submitting its formal application in March 2016.

The online institution has good reason to want to get accredited quickly -- eVersity was founded to give Arkansans looking to improve their employment prospects access to affordable and flexible undergraduate degrees, but without accreditation, eVersity is currently unable to offer students access to federal aid through Title IV of the Higher Education Act. Unaccredited degrees also have less value in the marketplace, and students will have a hard time transferring any credits they earn at eVersity to other institutions.

Matthews said that when the University of Arkansas System approached DEAC about accreditation, its officials explained that their mission to serve the people of Arkansas couldn’t wait six years.

“EVersity is a good fit for us,” said Matthews. “Their mission is consistent with our values -- to provide education as a social good. We want to support institutions that use online learning to reach students with accessibility and affordability challenges.”

Matthews noted that her organization had “worked really hard” to be innovative and respond to changes in the higher education landscape. “I don’t believe that our process is less in depth than the HLC’s,” said Matthews. “I think we just organize the process differently.”

Moore said that his experience with the DEAC has been “outstanding,” adding that its officials’ expertise in distance and online learning had been tremendously valuable.

“We have applied for accreditation with the organization that stands at the forefront of online education,” said Moore.

He said he has his “eyes wide-open” to the comparatively weaker reputation of national accreditation in higher education circles, but said he believes the perception that regional is better than national accreditation is mistaken and outdated. “What is not well understood is that all accreditation agencies are subject to the same U.S. Department of Education re-evaluation processes,” he said.

Asked whether the HLC is well suited to accrediting online-only institutions, Kauffman said that if a college’s mission is to provide online higher education degrees, that “would be considered in the review of that institution’s ability to meet our criteria.” Kauffman added that the HLC has been reviewing online higher education for years, and “will continue to review the various modalities in which higher education is delivered by our member institutions.”

Implications of eVersity’s Decision

Experts on accreditation and higher education policy are divided on the wisdom and implications of eVersity's choice.

Antoinette Flores, senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, said that she felt regional accreditation would have offered a “much more in-depth review” for eVersity, and would have been worth the wait.

National accreditation has a comparatively inferior reputation in many quarters of higher education, and regional accreditation’s “superior” reputation would benefit students, said Flores. The perception of national accreditation has been most significantly damaged by the political and public skepticism of for-profit higher education, as several of the most visible national accreditors focus on that sector. Last December, the U.S. Department of Education terminated its recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, one such accreditor, after the department found that ACICS failed to protect students and taxpayers from fraudulent and underperforming colleges.

On the issue of speed, Flores noted that institutions waiting for regional accreditation can often apply for federal aid during the candidacy stage of their application, and that students who attend regionally accredited institutions will have a much easier time transferring their credits than those who attend nationally accredited ones. Flores said eVersity seemed like “a little bit of an odd fit” for DEAC, which typically accredits smaller for-profit institutions that don’t offer federal aid.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said that while people in higher education circles might have concerns about national accreditation, he didn’t think it would bother students too much -- provided they could still get access to federal aid.

“Institutional prestige matters to some extent, but for online institutions I don’t have the sense that it matters that much to students,” he said. Kelchen noted that the relatively slow speed of regional accreditation could be both a good thing and a bad thing. “I don’t know how well regional accreditors are set up to handle online institutions,” he said. “It’s difficult for these institutions to survive without accreditation -- that’s why they may look to national accreditation first.”

Both Flores and Kelchen said it was possible that eVersity might seek regional accreditation after obtaining national accreditation.

Michael Goldstein, who heads the higher education law practice at Cooley LLP, said this strategy was not uncommon. “Many DEAC (and other nationally accredited) institutions migrate to regional as they mature; the nationals (and especially DEAC) are good ‘incubators,’” he said via email. Goldstein noted that Western Governors University, a pioneer in online-only education, secured DEAC accreditation in 2001 before working toward regional accreditation, which it received two years later.

A more conventional route to regional accreditation, however, is to start as a division of an already regionally accredited campus, said Goldstein. This is what the University of Maryland University College did before obtaining independent regional accreditation. Colorado State University Global Campus also went this route.

Moore said that eVersity decided not to do that, as it did not want to be under the academic and administrative control of another University of Arkansas System institution. “We wanted the ability to be nimble and responsive and not burdened by legacy systems, practices and policies. There are certainly advantages to built-in infrastructures, but they also come with a cost,” said Moore.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, said that both regional and national accrediting agencies are well equipped to assess online-only institutions. “If you’d have asked me 15 years ago, I’d have said the opposite. But accreditors can do this, and do do this,” she said.

Asked whether there might be ways to speed up the accreditation process without compromising quality, Eaton said it would be interesting to sit down with accreditors and discuss the pros and cons of reducing the length of the process as it exists currently. “We could develop a different process, but accreditation generally relies heavily on peer review and formative evaluation -- those aspects are valued greatly. Keeping a system that is textured and varied does take some time,” she said.

Thinking about possible alternatives to accreditation for emerging noninstitutional providers, Eaton said that her organization “has been pushing for more and more attention to innovation in accreditation to match the pace of innovation in higher education generally.”

In particular, CHEA has been considering the role of accrediting agencies in evaluating emerging noninstitutional providers, and recently took part in the federal pilot program aimed at creating quality assurance for alternative education providers.

Russell Poulin, director of policy and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, said that accreditors needed to figure out how to accredit new providers more quickly, without compromising on quality. “Accreditation is slow and innovation is fast; we are starting to see political and business pressure to find alternatives,” he said.

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