An Accreditor Goes Deeper on Data

Western accrediting agency’s new database, tapping into wide swath of federal information, better enables public scrutiny of the performance of the colleges it monitors.

August 30, 2021
 

By design, accrediting agencies play a range of roles with the colleges and universities they oversee: partner in institutional improvement, convener of a community of interest around issues of quality, and watchdog deputized by the federal government to ensure the institutions are deserving of federal funds. Those roles sometimes conflict. When accreditors appear to put their improvement mission first, advocates for students sometimes accuse them of going soft. When they prioritize accountability, their own members say they're overstepping their bounds.

For the last 20 years or so, the WASC Senior College and University Commission has walked that tightrope more than most. A decade ago, leaders of the agency -- which accredits four-year institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands (and has recently taken advantage of a change in federal law that allows it to accredit institutions in other parts of the U.S.) -- promoted a broad array of changes aimed at responding to criticism that accreditors were not transparent enough and focused on institutional outcomes. It became the first of the major institutional accreditors to make public all its "action letters" and reports of visiting teams. Opposition from some of its members, though, prevented it from requiring institutions to compare themselves to peer colleges on their graduates' proficiency in a set of academic skills.

A few years later, the accreditor (now known as WSCUC) instituted a dashboard that provided a fuller picture of colleges' success (or lack of it) in helping students complete their educational goals, broken down by race, family income and other factors to help identify potential gaps in equity.

But amid continuing questioning of whether accreditors are asking hard enough questions about colleges' academic, financial and operational performance, the Western accreditor is going a step further today, releasing a Key Indicators Dashboard that presents in straightforward fashion a plethora of federal data on how the colleges it accredits perform. The tool includes recently available federal data on undergraduates' earnings and loan repayment rates, and allows users to compare institutions individually and against regional and national averages.

Jamienne S. Studley, president of WSCUC and a former senior official at the U.S. Education Department in the Obama administration, said the dashboard serves both internal and external purposes. For the agency and its institutions, she said, the dashboard will make it easier to base their assessments of institutional performance on data. "We use data, trends, comparative performance, and disaggregated information about students to help us do the accreditor's job of understanding institutional effectiveness and supporting institutions' improvement," Studley said. "This will help us do that better."

The dashboard is also designed to respond to criticism from federal policy makers and consumer advocates (including this 2019 report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy) that accreditors “repeatedly refer to ‘using’ data in reviews, but there is little evidence that regional accreditors integrate data into the review process or base consequences on data.”

"We want to make clear to those who are asking about the strength and rigor of accreditors that we are working seriously and plan to deepen our use of evidence to ensure we and others are asking the right questions that emerge from data and basing our judgments both on the data and how well institutions answer our questions," Studley said.

The dashboard grew from a Lumina Foundation grant in 2019 aimed at ensuring a greater emphasis on results in higher education, encouraging states and accreditors to be "a little tougher when the signals go off," as one Lumina official said at the time.

The pressure on colleges and accreditors to step up their game was intense during the Obama administration, then largely eased as the Trump administration paid comparatively little attention to traditional higher education.

The Biden administration -- early on, at least -- hasn't signaled exactly how aggressive it might be in regulating colleges (except for for-profit institutions, at which it has taken clear aim). But the inner circle of the administration's Education Department is filled with policy analysts from organizations that have cast a critical eye on accreditors in the past, including Michelle Asha Cooper, who led the aforementioned Institute for Higher Education Policy, and Antoinette Flores, who wrote critical reports for the Center for American Progress including one that called accreditors "the unwatched watchdogs."

To the extent WSCUC hoped the new dashboard would show that it was serious about institutional accountability, early indications suggest the initiative has succeeded. "We appreciate WASC Senior College and University Commission’s creation of the Key Indicators Dashboard (KID) to harness the power of data," Mamie Voight, interim president of IHEP, said via email. "Students have much to gain when accreditors bring data to bear on institutional improvement conversations with their campuses. The KID shows disaggregated data, where it is available, which is an important first step toward understanding -- and addressing -- inequities."

The dashboard also appears to thread the needle in enabling greater transparency and scrutiny without alienating the colleges and universities it oversees, at least judging by initial reactions.

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Private nonprofit colleges sometimes fight efforts to standardize data and report on institutional outcomes, most notably in their opposition to the creation of a federal "unit record" database that would generate better data on institutional performance (legislation to create such a database is nonetheless gaining steam in Congress).

Steven Weiner, president of Menlo College, a private nonprofit business college in California, said that his sector's historical hostility to the collection and publication of data on institutional performance has been "overcome by events" -- public doubts about the value of college, government insistence on accountability and the like.

He said WSCUC's dashboard would provide data in a standardized, contextualized way that would help him drive better internal and external conversations about how Menlo is doing.

"From my perspective, more data presented more intelligently is a significant improvement and of great value," Weiner said.

He said he also hoped officials at his and other colleges could use the new data source to prospective students, many of whom, he said, are "nowhere near as sophisticated in their shopping for college" as they are for many consumer products.

"It's so important for schools, mine included, to figure out ways to help students understand their institution beyond whether it’s just a good fit for them," Weiner said, including a sense of how students like them have traditionally fared.

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