Pivotal Year for Accreditation

The new federal authority over accreditation and the central focus on consumer protection will have drawbacks for accreditors, higher education and students, writes Judith Eaton.

December 1, 2016
 
Packed room during June meeting of federal panel that oversees accreditors

For accreditation, 2016 will be remembered as an inflection point, a pivotal moment, a culmination of a multiyear revamping, which means this space is now dominated by two features.

The federal government, through the U.S. Department of Education, has consolidated its authority over accreditation. It is now the major actor directing and leading this work. Second, the public, whether members of the news media, consumer protection advocates, think tanks or employers, is now in agreement that the primary task of accreditation is public accountability. That means accredited status is supposed to be about protecting students -- to serve as a signal that what an institution or program says about itself is reliable, that there are reasonable chances of student success and that students will benefit economically in some way from the educational experience.

Both the strengthened federal oversight and expectations of public accountability have staying power. They are not temporary disruptions. They will remake accreditation for the foreseeable future.

At least some government authority over accreditation and public concern about the space and accountability are not new. What is new and what makes this moment pivotal is the extent to which there is agreement on both the expanded federal role and public accountability. And both are in significant contrast to longstanding practice of accrediting organizations as independent, nongovernmental bodies accustomed to setting their own direction and determining their own accountability.

This disruption can result in serious drawbacks for accreditation and higher education -- and students. Those drawbacks include a loss of responsible independence for both accreditation and the higher education institutions that are accredited. This independence has been essential to the growth and development of U.S. higher education as an outstanding enterprise both when it comes to quality and to access. There are concerns about maintaining academic freedom, so vital to high-quality teaching and research, in the absence of this independence. We have not, in this country, experimented with government and the public determining quality, absent academics themselves. Government calls for standardization in accreditation can, however unintentionally, undermine the valuable variation of types of colleges and universities, reducing options for students.

Consolidation of Federal Oversight

By way of background, “accreditation is broken” has been a federal government mantra for several years now. For the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as the executive branch, messages about perceived deficiencies of accreditation have been driving the push for greater government oversight, whether delivered from a secretary of education describing accreditors as “watchdogs that don’t bite” or an under secretary talking about how accreditors are “asleep at the switch” or a senator maintaining that “too often the accreditation means nothing” or a leading House representative saying accreditors may have to change how they operate in the changing landscape of higher education.

Members of Congress, through various hearings, bills and statements, have called for changes that would focus accreditation more on student learning, create an alternative accreditation system or strengthen government oversight of accreditation, especially in relation to protecting students. Yes, some policy makers are concerned about the department going too far. Crucially, however, the debate is not about what is being done -- greater federal oversight and public accountability -- but who should have the authority to act.

Both Congress and the department are pushing accreditation to focus more intently on both the performance of institutions and the achievement of students. From a federal perspective, “quality” is now about higher graduation rates, less student debt and default, better jobs, and decent earnings. The Education Department’s Transparency Agenda, announced last fall, has become a major vehicle to assert this federal authority. The Agenda ties judgment about whether accreditation is effective to graduation and default information, with the department, for the first time, publishing such data arrayed by accreditors and publishing accreditors’ student achievement standards -- or identifying the absence of such standards. The department also is taking steps to move accreditors toward standardizing the language of accreditation, toward more emphasis on quantitative standards and toward greater transparency about accreditation decisions.

Consistent with the Agenda, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), the federal body tasked with recommending to the secretary of education whether accrediting organizations are to be federally recognized, is now including attention to graduation and default rates as part of its periodic recognition reviews. Committee meetings involve more and more calls for judging accrediting organizations’ fitness for federal recognition based less on how these organizations operate and more on how well their accredited institutions and programs are doing when it comes to graduation and debt. And NACIQI has been clear that, because of the importance to the public and to protecting students, all activities of accrediting organizations now need to be part of the committee’s purview.

Most recently, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin and Brian Schatz introduced a bill on accreditation that would upend the process. The bill captures the major issues and concerns that have been raised by Congress and the department during the past few years, offering remedies driven by expanding federal authority over accreditors and institutions: federally imposed student achievement standards, a federal definition of quality, federal design of how accreditation is to operate and federal requirements that accrediting organizations include considerations of debt, default, affordability and success with Pell Grants as part of their standards. While it is unlikely that anything will happen with this bill during the remainder of the year, it provides a blueprint for change in accreditation for the next Congress and perhaps the foundation for the future reauthorization the Higher Education Act itself.

Moreover, as government plays a more prominent role in accreditation, the process has become important enough to be political. Lawmakers sometimes press individual accrediting organizations to act against specific institutions or to protect certain institutions. Across both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, lawmakers make their own judgments and are public about whether individual institutions are to have accredited status and how well individual accrediting organizations do their jobs. Now, when accrediting organizations go before NACIQI, not only are they concerned about meeting federal law and regulation, but they are also focused on the politics around any of their institutions or programs.

In short, the shift in Washington -- defining quality expectations for accreditors in contrast to accepting how accreditors define quality, intensive and extensive managing of how accreditors are carrying out their work in contrast to leaving this management to the accreditors, seeking to standardize accreditation practice in contrast to the variation in practice that comes with a decentralized accreditation world of 85 different accrediting organizations -- has placed the federal government in a strong oversight role. There is bipartisan support in Congress and across branches of government for this rearrangement of the accreditation space. It is difficult to imagine that the extent to which the federal government influences the activity and direction of accreditation will diminish any time soon, if at all.

Consolidation of Public Expectations

The pressure on accreditation for public accountability has significant staying power in a climate where higher education is both essential and, for many, expensive, even with federal and state assistance. There is a sense of urgency surrounding the need for at least some higher education for individual economic and social well-being as well as the future competitiveness and capacity of society. At the same time, disturbingly, student loan debt now totals more than $1.3 trillion, and in 2016 the average graduate who took out loans to complete a bachelor’s degree owed more than $37,000. In this environment, the public wants accreditation to focus on students gaining a quality education at a manageable financial level.

Accreditation is now the public’s business. On a weekly basis, multiple articles on accreditation appear in the news media, nationally and internationally. Social media reflect this as well, with any article about accreditation, but especially negative news, engaging large numbers of people in a very short period of time. Think tank reports on accreditation are increasing in number, mostly focused on how it needs to change.

From all sources, the focus is on accreditation and whether it is a reliable source of public accountability. Media attention is on default rates as too high and graduation rates as too low, on repeated expressions of employer dissatisfaction with employees’ skills and whether accredited institutions do a good job of preparing workers. In the face of a constant stream of articles highlighting these concerns, the public increasingly questions what accreditation accomplishes and, in particular, whether it is publicly accountable.

Moreover, where judgments about academic quality were once left to accreditors and institutions, technology now enables the news media and the public to make such judgments on their own. Enormous amounts of data on colleges and universities are readily available, from graduation rates to attrition, retention and transfer rates. Multiple data sources such as the federal government’s College Scorecard, College Navigator and Education Trust’s College Results Online are now available to be used by students, families, employers and journalists. Urgency, concern and widespread opportunity to make one’s own judgment about quality have all coalesced to raise questions about why any reliance on accreditation is needed, unless accreditation carries out this public accountability role. Perhaps the most striking example of this development is Google’s recent announcement that it is working with the College Scorecard to present Scorecard data (e.g., graduation rates, earnings, tuition) as part of a display when people search for a particular college or university.

What’s Next?

This, then, is the revamped accreditation space, with the federal government determining the direction of accreditation and a public that is driving accreditation into a predominantly public accountability role.

Will this revamping be successful? Will students be better served? Only if government, the public, higher education and accreditation can strike a balance. Expanded government oversight should be accompanied by acknowledging and respecting the independence, academic judgment and academic leadership long provided by colleges and universities and central to effective higher education and accreditation. Emphasis on public accountability should be accompanied by valuing the role of academics in determining quality. By and large, this has been accomplished through the relationship between accreditation, higher education and government until recently. The way forward needs this same balance.

Bio

Judith S. Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a membership association of 3,000 degree-granting colleges and universities.

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