Accreditation has been high on the agenda of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education  -- and not in very flattering ways. In “issue papers”  and in-person discussions,  members of the commission and others have offered many criticisms of current accreditation practice and expressed little faith or trust in accreditation as a viable force for quality for the future.
In response, accreditation and higher education officials have questioned the legitimacy of a number of the commission’s criticisms and pointed to the successful history and considerable capacity of accreditation as a reliable authority on higher education quality. Other officials are shrugging off the commission’s conversation with a “this too shall pass” response.
But just as it would be a mistake for the commission to ignore or sideline accreditation as a force for quality, it would be a mistake for the accreditation and higher education communities to ignore the concerns and calls for change from the commission. All of us who believe in the importance and ultimate value of accreditation need to take seriously what we have heard.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with all of what’s been said in the commission’s deliberations to “improve accreditation” or to “transform accreditation” -- especially when these comments are based on an (erroneous) perception of accreditation as a failed system. But, I do think that we should heed some of the criticism -- calls for accreditation to pay more attention to institutional performance and student learning outcomes, to additional transparency, to increased rigor in accreditation standards (moving toward “world class”) and to expanded support for innovation, especially in the for-profit sector.
There is an additional -- and quite worrisome -- call from the commission: to aggressively nationalize the accreditation and quality discussion, captured by concepts such as the “National Accreditation Foundation,” the “National Accreditation Working Group,” the “National Accreditation Framework” in the commission documents. These constructs are cause for concern because they can easily lead to a single set of national standards by which to judge all of higher education quality or can lead to federalizing of accreditation, expanding direct federal control and prescriptiveness with regard to standards, policy and practice.
Short of nationalizing or federalizing, accreditation has a good deal of capacity in place so that we are and can continue to be responsive to some of these calls and sustain our leadership in academic quality. Accreditors have already done much work in some of these areas, such as more attention to student learning outcomes and institutional performance in accreditation standards and transparency. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education, the two external review bodies that scrutinize accreditation for quality (because they “recognize” accreditors), have standards that include expectations that accreditors will address these and other issues, such as innovation and public participation.
I think nationalizing or federalizing accreditation would take us down the wrong road. But I also part ways with some of my colleagues in accreditation and higher education, from whom we’re hearing comments like “leave us alone,” “trust us” and “you don’t understand us.” Some are saying that an accreditation change agenda should proceed -- but should consist only of changes we like on a timetable acceptable to us. There is little acknowledgment that, in today’s society, a self-regulatory enterprise such as accreditation may now require a higher level of evidence and transparency than we are currently providing. There are few nods to the importance of additional effort to sustain faith and trust in the enterprise.
Yet it is all too easy to envisage a scenario in which either nationalization, federalization, loss of leadership or loss of faith and trust might come about. Suppose, for example, that the calls from the commission continue to gather attention and support. Suppose that the pace of change established by accreditation is simply not swift enough to constitute a viable response. Suppose that actors in the private sector step in and develop new mechanisms to gather information about higher education quality in a more transparent and evidence-based way, sidelining accreditation. Even worse, the federal government might decide that it can proceed with federalizing a “single set of standards” approach to quality, even within the current legal and regulatory framework provided by the current Higher Education Act.
There is an alternative scenario. We in accreditation and higher education can use the commission as a constructive external stimulus. We can acknowledge the commission’s message, making sure that we are the leaders for change. It is in our best interest to convert the national attention that the commission has brought to accreditation from a negative to a positive.
For example, accreditation and higher education can commit to progressive proposals that address several of the commission’s calls. We can agree to:
- Accelerate the current accreditation emphasis on evidence of institutional performance and student learning outcomes, assuring that the language of accreditation standards converts into energetic development and use of evidence of the results of teaching and learning.
- Break the current impasse in our debate on additional transparency about accredited status, committing ourselves to more fully inform the public about what it means to be accredited: What are institutional strengths? What might be improved? What does an accreditation review tell students about the services they receive from an institution?
- Build national capacity for comparability of the key features of accredited institutions and programs, agreeing to a small set of indicators of quality that the public can use to compare institutions.
- Focus on moving from threshold accreditation standards to greater rigor, especially as this relates to general education and the undergraduate curriculum, as part of a national effort to increase global competitiveness.
Making progress on such proposals will not be easy. First, it will require that accreditation and higher education give greater priority to directly serving the public interest than in the past. Second, we will need to confront the all-too-human tendencies toward complacency, defensiveness and resistance to change. Third and most important, it may require that accreditors and higher education leaders alike face fundamental questions about how much we value and support a strengthened accreditation system. Accreditation will have limited capacity to change unless higher education supports such efforts.
We need public faith and trust in accreditation as a force for quality in the future. We need to sustain and enhance our leadership for academic quality. We need to consider some changes in the conduct of the business of our enterprise.
Judith S. Eaton  is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an association of 3,000 colleges and universities that recognizes 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations.