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The real costs of accreditation, and the process's value (essay)

Much has been made in recent months by higher education and political leaders about how the costs to institutions of federal regulation are driving up the price of colleges and universities.

A new report from Vanderbilt University and the Boston Consulting Group claims that institutions spend about $3 billion for regional accreditation. This figure -- based on approximating accreditation costs as a percentage of the overall costs of regulation at 13 institutions and other industrywide data -- seems designed to reach a similar conclusion as an earlier report released by an influential Senate committee: that the cost of accreditation is unusually high.

The previous report claimed that Vanderbilt University’s College of Art and Sciences devotes more than 5,000 hours annually, at a cost of about $2.92 million, to report to its regional accreditor. The earlier study also included data gathered by Duke University asserting that the cost of accreditation in faculty and staff time over the last few years has been about $1.5 million. This is in addition to the $500,000 the university spends each year to manage required reporting related to academic assessment and other matters.

These costs are significantly inflated and irresponsibly misleading. As multiple news outlets have reported, the vast majority of the costs identified in the previous Vanderbilt study were related to regulations related to federal research grants and not accreditation.

In addition, suggesting, as this report does, that the cost of accreditation includes significant faculty costs ignores the reality that accreditation activities are part of regular faculty service and committee work and contribute to the overall improvement of the institution.

Unlike the many regulatory requirements that institutions have to deal with that are really only reporting, the process of peer review creates significant benefit to institutions to help them study themselves with expert colleagues, plan for the future, and discover and address their blind spots.

There is no doubt that colleges, universities and pre-K-12 institutions suffer from overregulation, but accreditation -- a process that reinforces continuous improvement of institutions -- isn’t the primary culprit. Accrediting agencies in both pre-K-12 and higher education are working to streamline their processes, to lower costs and become more cost-effective.

They are also seeking to become more transparent about decision making, and ensure that the broadest range of stakeholders is included in discussions of academic standards and quality -- quality that translates into real improvements at institutions, not just checklist compliance.

So what is the real cost of accreditation?

As two leaders of accreditation agencies -- one that assures quality in over 34,000 pre-K-12 institutions around the globe and the other that provides regional accreditation for over 800 Southern higher education institutions (including Duke and Vanderbilt) -- we estimate the cost of accreditation to be significantly lower than those reported in the Senate report.

A 2012 doctoral dissertation project conducted by Paul Woolston Jr. at the University of Southern California looked at the average cost for institutions seeking to reaffirm their accreditation through three of the six regional accreditation agencies. Woolston found that the average cost -- including both direct and indirect costs -- was $327,254 over a seven- to 10-year cycle. This means the annual cost to institutions ranges from roughly $32,000 to $41,000 per year depending on the length of the accreditation cycle.

Even at doctorate-granting research universities, the average combined direct and indirect cost over this entire span was about $415,000 for these institutions across three accreditation regions. Hardly the millions of dollars being bandied about by those who would like to see the accreditation process dismantled, and certainly an amount that is manageable enough to budget for over the long term.

Moreover, the cost of accreditation is significantly lower than what those unfamiliar with the process might expect because of the volunteer nature of the work. AdvancED, for example, recently brought a 40-member team to examine evidence of school quality in Hillsborough County, Fla., that included significant on-site time to review information and meet with district and community representatives -- a process similar to that undertaken during accreditation of higher education institutions.

If the cost of one day of that single visit was an outright business charge, at an average rate of $2,500 per consultant, the cost for the four-day visit could have exceeded $400,000. However, AdvancED charged the district $4,000 for the accreditation effort plus individual travel and expenses. Institutions are also charged an annual accreditation fee of $750. For Hillsborough, a district of 245 institutions, the cost per year is $183,750. The process resulted in the development of the district’s new five-year master plan that has received significant buy-in from teachers, staff, students, parents and other stakeholders, whose views were surveyed and taken into account to develop the plan.

The reality is that, typically, accreditation costs are only 5 to 10 percent of the costs of overall investment in institutional research and continuing improvement. This, we believe, is a small cost to pay for a vital service that ensures quality and spurs continuous improvement in all areas that affect student learning.

Why the huge disparities between our view and what some of the recent studies have found? For the most part, they reflect some of the confusion about what accreditors actually do, what is required of institutions and what institutions must do to improve themselves.

Accreditation sets standards for quality in pre-K-12 and higher education institutions, and measures and monitors institutional and student performance through a carefully orchestrated multiyear process of peer review. Teams of experts -- including academic deans, presidents and faculty from peer institutions, and nonacademic experts in particular disciplines -- work closely with institutional officials to investigate every aspect of what the institution does.

The process provides an in-depth view into the vital systems of the institution: the effectiveness of instruction, the availability and strength of student support, how the institution is led and governed, its financial management as well as how it uses data in decision making. Accreditors provide their seal of approval after institutions make needed changes and work closely with college and university leaders to develop an ongoing improvement strategy and demonstrate that they have achieved key standards according to clear indicators of performance, including measures of what students learn.

We believe this work represents a significant investment in the future of colleges and schools. A recent survey by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges suggests that this is so. Only about 16 percent of responding institutions said that accreditation is only or primarily an expense to the institution while the vast majority (over 80 percent) saw accreditation as primarily an investment (42.5 percent) or as both an investment and an expense (41.5 percent).

The survey also showed that institutional leaders believe that about two-thirds of the cost is spent on what the institution needs to invest in to improve, while only one-third of the cost is seen as stemming from the specific requirements of accreditation. Likewise, AdvancED conducts biannual surveys of its institutions. Results consistently show that over 90 percent of institutions find significant value in the accreditation process as a primary driver of continuous improvement and accountability. The cost of accreditation is viewed as minimal in comparison to the benefits and impact.

The cost of improving an institution is the singular responsibility of the institution, and part of its daily work. Exemplar colleges -- and even corporations like IBM -- do not consider the work of improvement to be an onerous task or something that an accrediting body forces them to do but an essential part of their management.

We hope that policy makers will come to recognize that the cost of accreditation is what is required to help guide institutions on their improvement journey; it is not the cost of the journey itself.

Belle S. Wheelan is president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Mark A. Elgart serves as the founding president and chief executive officer for Advance Education (AdvancED).

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