WASHINGTON -- Two years ago, Molly Corbett Broad told a group of accreditors and campus administrators that as pressure mounted on colleges to keep prices down and productivity up, higher education leaders had better reform the voluntary accreditation system that serves as the enterprise's quality control mechanism -- or else.
"If we fail to act, it is likely that change will be imposed upon us, with potentially serious consequences for the governance structure that has allowed the United States to develop the best, most inclusive" higher education system in the world, Broad, president of the American Council on Education, told those assembled  for a meeting of the country's largest regional accreditor in 2010.
A year ago, with that risk in mind, Broad appointed a panel  of college presidents and other higher education leaders to, as she put it at the time, "see how much of this reform we can reach agreement on and do by ourselves, and to ourselves." The committee, Broad conceded at the time, had "a very tough assignment," given the intense differences of opinion that exist among higher ed officials about many accreditation issues, including how hard accreditors should push institutions on student learning outcomes.
The report  of the council's National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation, released today, offers evidence of just how fractious an issue accreditation is, and how difficult it might be to win agreement within higher education for the sort of major change that Broad suggested might be necessary (or that politicians might eventually impose).
ACE officials say they believe the document makes a persuasive case for the value of sustaining a voluntary, peer-review-based system of regional accreditation, and points the way for potentially significant changes by accreditors and colleges that would increase public accountability.
While the report doesn't challenge the basic setup of regional accreditation, it suggests that the accreditors move more quickly to take action against failing institutions, release more information to the public, and find ways to allow institutions with a long track record of good performance to avoid the time-consuming process of full reviews.
Those recommendations are likely to seem tepid or unspecific to those who think the accreditation system is broken or failing. And panel members acknowledge that the report mainly lays a philosophical foundation, rather than recommending fundamental changes that they say would be impractical or unlikely now. But given the diverse views of the panel's members, its leaders say, this was an important beginning.
"This doesn't define the end point," said Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and the panel's co-chair. "We felt that rushing to some action items wouldn't be efficacious."
An Unlikely Sexy Issue
Accreditation has long been a topic likelier to make eyelids droop than to inflame passion. But after years of quiet neglect from policy makers, it was thrust into the spotlight during the second Bush administration, when then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and a national commission she appointed sought to use accreditation to crank up accountability on colleges and universities. The Obama administration has largely embraced that approach, as the Education Department's National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity is conducting its own review  of the enterprise's effectiveness, with the idea of identifying approaches that might be considered when Congress next renews the Higher Education Act, possibly in 2014.
The fundamental tension is that the federal government has outsourced much of its authority for judging quality in higher education to a group of entities (accrediting agencies) that are run by the colleges themselves, and in recent years the government (through administrations of both parties) has sought to increase its control and oversight of those agencies in ways that discomfit many campus leaders. This has been particularly true in the realm of student learning, where some college officials have complained about escalating directives.
Some critics have argued that that dynamic could be altered either by breaking the link that makes accreditation the main gatekeeper for colleges to gain access to federal financial aid funds (such that the federal government could stake less of a claim on accreditors) or by giving the government more direct responsibility for some of the roles that now fall to accreditors. The ACE report rejects those suggestions, focusing instead on strengthening the current setup that seeks to balance oversight and institutional autonomy.
The panel's report also argues for keeping rather than dismantling the regional structure through which the institutional accreditors operate, which has come under increasing question as geographic boundaries blur and arguments build for judging colleges by institutional type rather than where they reside. "The current regional basis of accreditation is probably not the way America would structure the system if starting from scratch," the report states. "There has already been discussion about the possibility of creating new accreditors based on institutional mission. While these discussions will continue, regional accreditation is the system in place. Completely replacing the current structure would be costly and would divert attention from the task at hand."
Instead, the panel -- whose own members were frequently at odds, with deep divisions at times about how aggressively to remake the system -- focused its deliberations on reaching agreement about the principles that should guide a system of voluntary accreditation ("emphasize assuring quality," "preserve institutional diversity and academic freedom") and a set of recommendations to better accomplish them.
In laying out the recommendations, the report alternates between language that is self-critical, acknowledging ways that higher education must improve, and defensive, warning against excessive regulation. (The latter is evidenced by this footnote related to the thorny topic of student learning outcomes: "We note that the over-specification of educational outcomes by any central authority can too easily narrow the curriculum and undermine the institutional autonomy without providing useful information to the public. Many members of the Task Force believe the federal government is a significant threat in this regard.")
Most of the recommendations will sound familiar to those who follow these issues: increasing the transparency of the accreditation process, in large part by making public more information about its outcomes; focusing more on (and releasing more information about) student success and educational quality, though with lots of caveats about the dangers of oversimplification in doing so; taking stronger, quicker action against "substandard" institutions (in response to the criticism that clearly failing institutions sometimes keep their right to operate long past the point where their demise is assured); increasing the involvement of college presidents and other senior officials in accreditation; and making the process more cost-effective, as many college leaders complain about the rising costs of complying with accreditors' demands.
Perhaps the single most significant recommendation the panel suggests is to impose differing levels of scrutiny and oversight on institutions with different profiles. A streamlined but in-depth review of data and documents might suffice for colleges and universities with "an established history of success," while less-established or thriving institutions might require a full-blown traditional review. "Such an approach would concentrate accreditors’ attention not on every institution equally and indiscriminately, or only on a handful of struggling schools, but rather on a range of institutions that cannot demonstrate a consistent record of success," the report states. But its authors concede that creating a system of differentiated reviews might require a change in the law.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, described the report as being written "from the academy to the academy," with the goal of helping to build a common vision for regional accreditation's future within higher education rather than responding to external critics. "There is nothing we could say that would satisfy critics of regional accreditation," he said.
That may be true, but some of those critics said they had hoped that the panel might try to lead the way toward more dramatic changes. Those hoping for that were disappointed, they say.
"This starts from a premise that accreditation is working well, and in my view, it's not working well," said Arthur Rothkopf, co-chairman of the Education Department's accreditation advisory committee and a former president of Lafayette College. "It more or less accepts the status quo and makes some modest suggestions. It reads like academia circling the wagons."
Members, National Task Force on Institutional Accreditation