Calls for scorecards and rating systems of higher education institutions that have been floating around Washington, if used for purposes beyond providing comparable consumer information, would make the federal government an arbiter of quality and judge of institutional performance.
This change would undermine the comprehensive, careful scrutiny currently provided by regional accrediting agencies and focus on cursory reviews.
Regional accreditors provide a peer-review process that sparks an investigation into key challenges institutions face to look beyond symptoms for root causes. They force all providers of postsecondary education to investigate closely every aspect of performance that is crucial to strengthening institutional excellence, improvement, and innovation. If you want to know how well a university is really performing, a graduation rate will only tell you so much.
But the peer-review process conducted by accrediting bodies provides a view into the vital systems of the institution: the quality of instruction, the availability and effectiveness of student support, how the institution is led and governed, its financial management, and how it uses data.
Moreover, as part of the peer-review process, accrediting bodies mobilize teams of expert volunteers to study governance and performance measures that encourage institutions to make significant changes. No government agency can replace this work, can provide the same level of careful review, or has the resources to mobilize such an expert group of volunteers. In fact, the federal government has long recognized its own limitations and, since 1952, has used accreditation by a federally recognized accrediting agency as a baseline for institutional eligibility for Title IV financial-aid programs.
Attacked at times by policy makers as an irrelevant anachronism and by institutions as a series of bureaucratic hoops through which they must jump, the regional accreditors’ approach to quality control has rather become increasingly more cost-effective, transparent, and data- and outcomes-oriented.
Higher education accreditors work collaboratively with institutions to develop mutually agreed-upon common standards for quality in programs, degrees, and majors. In fact, in the Southern region, accreditation has addressed public and policy maker interests in gauging what students gain from their academic experience by requiring, since the 1980s, the assessment of student learning outcomes in colleges. Accreditation agencies also have established effective approaches to ensure that students who attend institutions achieve desired outcomes for all academic programs, not just a particular major.
While the federal government has the authority to take actions against institutions that have proven deficient, it has not used this authority regularly or consistently. A letter to Congress from the American Council on Education and 39 other organizations underscored the inability of the U.S. Department of Education to act with dispatch, noting that last year the Department announced “it would levy fines on institutions for alleged violations that occurred in 1995 -- nearly two decades prior.”
By contrast, consider that in the past decade, the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Colleges stripped nine institutions of their accreditation status and applied hundreds of sanctions to all types of institutions (from online providers to flagship campuses) in its region alone. But, when accreditors have acted boldly in recent times, they been criticized by politicians for going too far, giving accreditors the sense that we’re “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
The Problem With Simple Scores
Our concern about using rating systems and scorecards for accountability is based on several factors. Beyond tilting the system toward the lowest common denominator of quality, rating approaches can create new opportunities for institutions to game the system (as with U.S. News & World Report ratings and rankings) and introduce unintended consequences as we have seen occur in K-12 education.
Over the past decade, the focus on a few narrow measures for the nation’s public schools has not led to significant achievement gains or closing achievement gaps. Instead, it has narrowed the curriculum and spurred the current public backlash against overtesting. Sadly, the data generated from this effort have provided little actionable information to help schools and states improve, but have actually masked -- not illuminated -- the root causes of problems within K-12 institutions.
Accreditors recognize that the complex nature of higher education requires that neither accreditors nor the government should dictate how individual institutions can meet desired outcomes. No single bright line measure of accountability is appropriate for the vast diversity of institutions in the field, each with its own unique mission. The fact that students often enter and leave the system and increasingly earn credits from multiple institutions further complicates measures of accountability.
Moreover, setting minimal standards will not push institutions that think they are high performing to get better. All institutions – even those considered “elite” – need to work continually to achieve better outcomes and should have a role in identifying key outcomes and strategies for improvement that meet their specific challenges.
Accreditors also have demonstrated they are capable of addressing new challenges without strong government action. With the explosion of online providers, accreditors found a solution to address the challenges of quality control for these programs. Accrediting groups partnered with state agencies, institutions, national higher education organizations, and other stakeholders to form the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements, which use existing regional higher education compacts to allow for participating states and institutions to operate under common, nationwide standards and procedures for regulating postsecondary distance education. This approach provides a more uniform and less costly regulatory environment for institutions, more focused oversight responsibilities for states, and better resolution of complaints without heavy-handed federal involvement.
Along with taking strong stands to sanction higher education institutions that do not meet high standards, regional accreditors are better-equipped than any centralized governmental body at the state or national level to respond to the changing ecology of higher education and the explosion of online providers.
We argue for serious -- not checklist -- approaches to accountability that support improving institutional performance over time and hold institutions of all stripes to a broad array of criteria that make them better, not simply more compliant.
Belle S. Wheelan is president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the regional accrediting body for 11 states and Latin America. Mark A. Elgart is founding president and chief executive officer for AdvancED, the world’s largest accrediting body and parent organization for three regional K-12 accreditors.