What the Accreditation Naysayers Don’t Understand

If you want a higher ed reboot, you’re going to need the accreditors, Lawrence Schall writes.

February 27, 2023
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Most people don’t get accreditation. That’s OK. Most people don’t need to. But for all the students, parents and policy makers calling for a higher education reboot, know this—accreditation is one of the most powerful levers we’ve got to change what we don’t like about today’s higher ed. It’s one of our best ways to assure equity for students, quality programs and innovative new models.

Accreditation naysayers don’t understand today’s accreditation. I know: I was one of them.

For 30 years as a college vice president and president, I was on the receiving end of accreditation. In fact, in my third year of the presidency, the college I’d been brought in to turn around was given a financial warning by our accreditors. After running large operating deficits for years, the college now risked losing accreditation. At the time, it felt like the accreditors were making it that much more challenging for us to succeed. Their very public action made it hard to convince students to come to our college and alumni and donors to support us.

But here’s the thing—accreditation forced me to make the hard decisions that others before me had not made. Our college not only survived, it thrived. By the time I left after a 15-year run, enrollment had grown by more than 50 percent, and we had operated with significant surpluses for years.

Given my history with accreditation, I surprised myself when I agreed to take on the presidency of the New England Commission of Higher Education. NECHE accredits more than 200 colleges not only in New England but as far as away as Switzerland, Greece and Lebanon.

Two and a half years into the job, I now see why accreditation is both misunderstood and essential to student equity, quality assurance and the innovation we all crave in higher ed. This week, I will appear before the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which advises the U.S. Department of Education on the recognition process for accrediting agencies and will share what I’ve learned.

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Accreditation has changed. Today we don’t count books.

Decades ago, when I first encountered accreditation, we had to report how many library books we had. That number seemed to matter, even though more than 90 percent of those books hadn’t circulated in years. Accreditors stopped counting books a long time ago. Instead, accreditors now want to know, among many other things, if a college’s ambitions match its financial wherewithal. At NECHE, we run sophisticated annual financial screens. If a college fails four of our 12 benchmarks, expert reviewers take a more in-depth look and then ask the institution to explain its numbers. When there’s still concern, the commission takes action if necessary. Just last month, the commission voted to withdraw accreditation, as of Aug. 31, from one of our colleges for failure to meet our standard on financial resources (the college is appealing the decision).

We act a lot faster than we used to—both to spot warning signs but also to make way for innovation.

One of the joys of my work with NECHE has been expediting the accreditation of College Unbound, which serves nontraditional students, including the formerly incarcerated, at an affordable cost—about $10,000 in tuition and fees per year. The commission receives more than a hundred requests per year for approval of major changes to programs or locations, and each of those requests are promptly decided by our commission during one of its five meetings held each year.

We use data to make hard decisions.

To assess student outcomes and financial viability, we combine our data with external data sources, including data from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Student Clearinghouse. We look annually at retention and graduation rates, loan default and repayment rates, as well as passage rates for the bar exam and nursing licensing exams. The commission uses all these data to make decisions—sometimes hard ones. NECHE has withdrawn accreditation from a higher percentage of our colleges than any other of our peer accreditors (five institutions since 2010, out of about 200 domestic member institutions). And that number doesn’t include the institutions that have voluntarily withdrawn their accreditation as the result of our review.

It’s all about protecting students.

A common myth about accreditors is that we care more about our institutional colleagues than students. Let me set the record straight—while all our standards are student-centered, one of our nine standards, Standard 5, is actually titled “Students.” That standard focuses on the integrity of the recruitment and admission processes, on the breadth and quality of services provided to students, and on the data to show the effectiveness of a college’s efforts across these areas. Standard 8—“Educational Effectiveness”—is entirely devoted to examining evidence that outcomes achieved by students are satisfactory given the college’s mission. And Standard 9—“Integrity, Transparency and Public Disclosure”—requires every institution to be both accurate and transparent in the information it provides to students and their families.

Do we accredit colleges with varying levels of student outcomes? Absolutely. How could we not, given that colleges like Brown University and College Unbound—neighbors in Providence, R.I.—are serving very different student bodies? And do some of the colleges we accredit have work to do to continuously improve their outcomes? Absolutely they do. That’s why our visiting teams make recommendations to the commission to issue formal notices to institutions with demands for corrective actions. And that’s how a four-year regional public like Granite State College has been able to improve its graduation rate by about 50 percent in the last five years.

Accreditation is complicated, and it should be.

NECHE accredits institutions as different as Harvard University, Bunker Hill Community College, Hebrew College and Southern New Hampshire University. Our colleges have different missions and serve vastly different populations, yet each of them must meet all nine of our quality standards. Our system of peer reviewers matched to each institution type has proven to be the best mechanism for understanding each of our members and holding them accountable. You don’t have to understand the ins and outs of accreditation to understand that without it, the higher education system in the United States would not have achieved its position, widely recognized, as the most highly respected system in the world.

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Lawrence Schall is president of the New England Commission of Higher Education. He previously served as president of Oglethorpe University, in Atlanta, for 15 years.

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