In the early spring of 1989, not long before the Tiananmen Square protests, my wife and I were visiting China on behalf of the U. S. Agency for International Development to consult with Chinese higher education officials about educational reform. This was a unique time in China, when political discourse was relatively open and when many educators were emboldened to be openly critical of governmental policies.
During one of our many fascinating conversations, a high-ranking education official from the Shanghai district leaned close to us and asked, in a very serious tone, “How is it that you Americans are so successful at keeping your government from interfering in the operation of your universities?”
This was a question I had never before considered, since in the U.S. we tended to take the autonomy of our higher education institutions for granted. But after a few moments of reflection, it suddenly dawned on me: Of course, it’s the accreditation process!
Most other governments justify their active involvement in the policies and practices of colleges and universities on the grounds of quality control: since institutions are supposed to serve the public and since they receive governmental support, the government has a responsibility to ensure that the programs are of sufficient quality to protect the public and to justify the expenditure of public funds.
In the United States we have managed to avoid such government control through a unique process called private accreditation, which in most instances consists of a peer review process where a team of knowledgeable academics from other institutions gathers together to assess the programs, policies and practices of the institution being evaluated.
Anyone who has ever been a member of a visiting accreditation team knows how exacting and thorough the whole process can be. In fact, I have frequently heard team members complain about all the uncompensated time and work involved in reviewing documents, visiting the institution, participating in team discussions, and drafting the report.
But they do it because they know it is the price they have to pay to maintain quality in our system. Less often do team members recognize that accreditation is also the means by which we maintain our autonomy and independence from government interference.
Lately we have been hearing a lot of criticism being directed at accreditation, especially from Capitol Hill. While some of this criticism is no doubt warranted, the most ominous fault-finding comes from those who are suggesting that the government should no longer accept the quality judgments of accrediting teams as a basis for determining eligibility for student aid and other forms of governmental support.
If the federal government sidesteps the accrediting process and begins to engage in its own brand of quality control, American higher education is in for big trouble. Just ask the Chinese.
While it is true that the pace of reform in the accreditation process can sometimes seem glacial, it is important to realize the process has undergone significant change in recent decades. When regional accreditation was criticized in the 1960s for focusing too much attention on mere resources such as the size of the endowment or the number of books in the library, the regional associations began to insist that their members instead devote more attention to student outcomes.
As a matter of fact, it is probably no exaggeration to say that the current “assessment movement” in American higher education has come about largely through the actions of the regional accrediting associations. While we can debate the value and usefulness of current assessment technologies, it is difficult to argue that the increased attention being given to student learning and development is not a healthy development in American higher education.
Some contemporary critics of accreditation have complained about the regional arrangement, where each of the six regions sets it own requirements and standards. While there may be some advantages to greater uniformity, national standards might well create some of the same problems associated with federal control, including diminished flexibility and the erosion of institutional diversity.
It should be pointed out, incidentally, that the increased focus on student outcomes was pioneered initially by only one or two regional associations, and subsequently spread to the other regions.
Critics who have no first-hand experience with accreditation often fail to understand that “accreditation”—the binary decision to either grant or withhold accreditation—is seldom the main issue in most accreditation visits.
Rather, the focus of the team review is instead on institutional improvement: What can this institution do to strengthen its programs and practices? Institutions generally take the team’s recommendations for change very seriously. So while the accreditation team must always consider the question of whether an institution meets minimal standards required to merit accreditation, its primary concern is usually with institutional improvement. It seems likely that institutions will be much more inclined to take criticism seriously if it comes from informed professional peers rather than government bureaucrats.
This essay is not intended to serve as an apologia for accreditation. Indeed, there is much about the process that could be improved.
But if we wish to preserve what is exceptional and excellent about American higher education -- diversity, path-breaking research, academic freedom, and innovative approaches to curriculum and instruction -- then we have to make sure that our primary means of quality control remains independent of government.
Alexander W. Astin is Allan M. Cartter Professor Emeritus and founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.
A central tenet of the student learning outcomes "movement" is that higher education institutions must articulate a specific set of skills, traits and/or dispositions that all of its students will learn before graduation. Then, through legitimate means of measurement, institutions must assess and publicize the degree to which its students make gains on each of these outcomes.
Although many institutions have yet to implement this concept fully (especially regarding the thorough assessment of institutional outcomes), this idea is more than just a suggestion. Each of the regional accrediting bodies now requires institutions to identify specific learning outcomes and demonstrate evidence of outcomes assessment as a standard of practice.
This approach to educational design seems at the very least reasonable. All students, regardless of major, need a certain set of skills and aptitudes (things like critical thinking, collaborative leadership, intercultural competence) to succeed in life as they take on additional professional responsibilities, embark (by choice or by circumstance) on a new career, or address a daunting civic or personal challenge. In light of the educational mission our institutions espouse, committing ourselves to a set of learning outcomes for all students seems like what we should have been doing all along.
Yet too often the outcomes that institutions select to represent the full scope of their educational mission, and the way that those institutions choose to assess gains on those outcomes, unwittingly limit their ability to fulfill the mission they espouse. For when institutions narrow their educational vision to a discrete set of skills and dispositions that can be presented, performed or produced at the end of an undergraduate assembly line, they often do so at the expense of their own broader vision that would cultivate in students a self-sustaining approach to learning. What we measure dictates the focus of our efforts to improve.
As such, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the educational structure that currently produces majors and minors in content areas is simply replaced by one that produces majors and minors in some newly chosen learning outcomes. Instead of redesigning the college learning experience to alter the lifetime trajectory of an individual, we allow the whole to be nothing more than the sum of the parts -- because all we have done is swap one collection of parts for another. Although there may be value in establishing and implementing a threshold of competence for a bachelor’s degree (for which a major serves a legitimate purpose), limiting ourselves to this framework fails to account for the deeply held belief that a college experience should approach learning as a process -- one that is cumulative, iterative, multidimensional and, most importantly, self-sustaining long beyond graduation.
The disconnect between our conception of a college education as a process and our tendency to track learning as a finite set of productions (outcomes) is particularly apparent in the way that we assess our students’ development as lifelong learners. Typically, we measure this construct with a pre-test and a post-test that tracks learning gains between the years of 18 and 22 -- hardly a lifetime (the fact that a few institutions gather data from alumni 5 and 10 years after graduation doesn’t invalidate the larger point).
Under these conditions, trying to claim empirically that (1) an individual has developed and maintained a perpetual interest in learning throughout their life, and that (2) this lifelong approach is directly attributable to one’s undergraduate education probably borders on the delusional. The complexity of life even under the most mundane of circumstances makes such a hypothesis deeply suspect. Yet we all know of students that experienced college as a process through which they found a direction that excited them and a momentum that carried them down a purposeful path that extended far beyond commencement.
I am by no means suggesting that institutions should abandon assessing learning gains on a given set of outcomes. On the contrary, we should expect no less of ourselves than substantial growth in all of our students as a result of our efforts. Designed appropriately, a well-organized sequence of outcomes assessment snapshots can provide information vital to tracking student learning over time and potentially increasing institutional effectiveness. However, because the very act of learning occurs (as the seminal developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky would describe it) in a state of perpetual social interaction, taking stock of the degree to which we foster a robust learning process is at least as important as taking snapshots of learning outcomes if we hope to gather information that helps us improve.
If you think that assessing learning outcomes effectively is difficult, then assessing the quality of the learning process ought to send chills down even the most skilled assessment coordinator’s spine. Defining and measuring the nature of process requires a very different conception of assessment – and for that matter a substantially more complex understanding of learning outcomes.
Instead of merely measuring what is already in the rearview mirror (i.e., whatever has already been acquired), assessing the college experience as a process requires a look at the road ahead, emphasizing the connection between what has already occurred and what is yet to come. In other words, assessment of the learning that results from a given experience would include the degree to which a student is prepared or “primed” to make the most of a future learning experience (either one that is intentionally designed to follow immediately, or one that is likely to occur somewhere down the road). Ultimately, this approach would substantially improve our ability to determine the degree to which we are preparing students to approach life in a way that is thoughtful, pro-actively adaptable, and even nimble in the face of both unforeseen opportunity and sudden disappointment.
Of course, this idea runs counter to the way that we typically organize our students’ postsecondary educational experience. For if we are going to track the degree to which a given experience “primes” students for subsequent experiences -- especially subsequent experiences that occur during college -- then the educational experience can’t be so loosely constructed that the number of potential variations in the order of a student experiences virtually equals the number of students enrolled at our institution.
This doesn’t mean that we return to the days in which every student took the same courses at the same time in the same order, but it does require an increased level of collective commitment to the intentional design of the student experience, a commitment to student-centered learning that will likely come at the expense of an individual instructor’s or administrator’s preference for which courses they teach or programs they lead and when they might be offered.
The other serious challenge is the act of operationalizing a concept of assessment that attempts to directly measure an individual’s preparation to make the most of a subsequent educational experience. But if we want to demonstrate the degree to which a college experience is more than just a collection of gains on disparate outcomes – whether these outcomes are somehow connected or entirely independent of each other – then we have to expand our approach to include process as well as product.
Only then can we actually demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, that in fact the educational process is the glue that fuses those disparate parts into a greater -- and qualitatively distinct -- whole.
Mark Salisbury is director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois. He blogs at Delicious Ambiguity.