Who Knew? 5 Surprises About Accreditation

Accreditation is stepping up its game in an evolving higher education landscape in ways that may surprise you, writes Jamienne Studley.

February 17, 2022
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It’s no surprise that accreditation is misunderstood. The accreditation system exists precisely to allow for tailored, predictive judgments applying broad standards to infinitely varied institutions. Add multiple accrediting agencies with different approaches, terminology and mandates, with some accreditors evaluating whole institutions and others specific programs, and it’s a recipe for the description “black box.”

I receive so many questions about accreditation—variations of “really, an accreditor does that?”—that it’s time to share some facts about accreditation that may be surprising to many. Some are long-standing practices, while others are recent developments. Some are common across accreditation agencies, while others are agency-specific. Focusing on the agency I lead, WASC Senior College and University Commission, reveals how accreditation can focus on equity, outcomes, student success and institutional risk monitoring in a new landscape of national scope and innovation.

  1. Student outcomes. Calls abound for accreditors to consider outcomes, evidence and measures of institutional and student success—as one observer has put it, to “devote less attention to process and more attention to results.” Indeed, I issued some of those calls myself when I chaired the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal body that advises the secretary of education on the recognition of accrediting agencies, and when I worked on higher education policy at the U.S. Department of Education.

Message received: results matter. Allow me to introduce you to WSCUC’s public Key Indicators Dashboard (affectionately known as KID). In August, WSCUC posted a wealth of data by institution about student demographics and student finances, including median student debt levels, the percentages of students receiving Pell Grants, graduation and retention rates, and postgraduation outcomes. Disaggregation of student data by race and ethnicity, first required by WSCUC in 2000 to support equity priorities, is now comprehensive. Outcomes and trends are displayed in the context of a range of WSCUC and national medians.

Just last week, WSCUC added peer benchmarking to this public resource to provide context and a consistent way to look at student performance across institutions and promote conversations about outcomes and improvement. In developing this tool, WSCUC convened an expert advisory group to identify a national set of peers for each WSCUC institution that has undergraduate programs and reports to IPEDS. Institutions may complement these groups with additional peer sets, such as aspirational peers or peers that share missions or strategies.

Additions this month to the federal College Scorecard add further richness to the data pool for understanding results for students. So will the plan by the Carnegie Classifications for Institutions of Higher Education, in their new home at the American Council on Education, to develop a new classification measuring institutions’ success at fostering students’ social and economic mobility.

All of this advances WSCUC’s Better Conversations, Better Data initiative, launched in 2019 with support from Lumina Foundation. This initiative is motivated by the view that accreditors’ responsibility for both improvement and accountability is best served by inquiry grounded in evidence, conducted by reviewers committed to excellence, equity and independence. Supporting institutions and reviewers to have deep, productive discussions is as important as nifty numbers and charts. Outcomes data and peer benchmarking are not intended to create floors, ceilings or thresholds. Their value is to promote understanding, drive results and support the analysis necessary to make rigorous accreditation decisions.

  1. Transparency. Perhaps the biggest single surprise comes when I tell reporters, advocates and policy makers that WSCUC Commission Action Letters (CALs) and team reports on institutional reviews are publicly available on our website and have been since 2012. Team reports are candid, thorough and address each institution’s strengths, context and any concerns about its ability to meet accreditation standards. CALs enumerate commendations for effectiveness, effort and change, as well as specific areas requiring attention, improvement and further monitoring. If an institution fails to meet accreditation standards or is in danger of failing to meet them, the CAL will explain where it falls short and what is needed. Making these documents public not only opens a door on the reality of the institution but also reveals the basis for the accreditation judgment, holding us as an accreditor accountable.
  2. Monitoring and follow-up. Another aspect of accreditation that often comes as a surprise is how frequently an accreditor interacts with institutions that are judged to have problems or are in flux or danger. In other words, accreditation is already risk-based. The risk that an institution will fall short of standards drives how often the accreditor asks for additional information and reviews the institution, and for many institutions those interactions are of necessity frequent and demanding. WSCUC now conducts an Annual Integrated Monitoring process (acronym alert: AIM) to review all institutions and trigger follow-up based on a set of quantitative and qualitative indicators, including student outcomes data (on such measures as graduation and cohort default rate) and financial metrics (going beyond federal financial responsibility composite scores to include enrollment-based projections). Complaints and indications of significant governance, ethical, legal or leadership risks or distress can also trigger further steps.
  3. Anywhere? Really? National and global scope. In February 2020, WSCUC was the first regional agency to open its accreditation to U.S. institutions beyond our historic geographic boundaries. Other regional accreditors have since announced openness to institutions nationwide.

It is amazing how many college leaders do not realize that the landscape has changed. In the words of a college president I spoke to as her accreditor’s team visit was about to begin, “If only I’d known sooner that I had a choice” among accrediting agencies.

WSCUC currently has institutions in the seeking-accreditation pipeline based in Colorado, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and in Bahrain, France, Spain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. They would join our global community of institutions meeting the same standards from Armenia, Turkey and Kenya to Mexico, Ecuador and Peru, from India and Fiji to the Czech Republic and the U.S. What’s crucial is a shared commitment to leadership in improving quality and results.

  1. Innovation. The changing face of accreditation is also evident in the accreditation of new institutional models found to meet broad standards, thoughtfully applied. The press has covered WSCUC’s July 2021 accreditation of one such education innovator, Minerva University, and the New England Commission of Higher Education’s accreditation of an innovative institution aimed at adult learners, College Unbound.

Other examples of distinctive institutions speak directly to WSCUC’s “what, not how” approach to accreditation and to interest in experiential and clinical learning as well as field-informed and employer-embedded curricula. Examples from the universe of WSCUC-accredited or candidate institutions include the American Film Institute, High Tech High Graduate School of Education, Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, Pardee RAND Graduate School, REACH University and Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

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Over the years, I’ve had many different roles in higher education—college president, federal policy and legal official, adjunct faculty member, civil rights advocate—always with the same commitments to student success, equity, candid discourse and open information, and effective, efficient systems. The best surprise is that accreditation is stepping up energetically with changes that advance those same goals.

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Jamienne S. Studley, president of WSCUC, has also been president of Skidmore College and deputy under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

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