The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), formed in 1996, is a national organization devoted to strengthening higher education through strengthening accreditation. CHEA's formation was, at least in part, a response to a series of "disconnects," fissures within the higher education community between those who had positive reactions to accreditation as we have come to know it, and those whose reactions were negative.
The accreditation reform initiative which culminated in the creation of CHEA was launched by a group of college and university presidents determined to bridge these disconnects and eliminate reasons for negative reactions to accreditation. They believed that the advantages of voluntary accreditation far outweighed any disadvantages. In short, they were interested in "reconnecting." But before they could start the work of reconnecting, they had to peel back the rhetoric and understand the real nature of the disconnects.
The first disconnect, they realized, was disagreement within and among the higher education and accreditation communities about the role and scope of accreditation: whether it should seek to assure minimum standards or to promote institutional improvement, and whether it should be designed to serve internal audiences or external ones. While there was general agreement that accreditation of some sort is important and valuable, consensus quickly broke down around questions of purpose and audience.
The second disconnect was growing discomfort with the expanding federal role in accreditation, although there was at the same time a strong desire to continue using accreditation as a public accountability mechanism for obtaining federal financial aid assistance and other needed resources. The third disconnect involved significant resistance to the notion that higher education institutions must be subject to additional regulation (whether state or federal) if quality is to be assured. Nonetheless, there was a sense that higher education needs some nationally prominent means by which to affirm its commitment to quality and to define the community's interest in quality assurance.
In the two years prior to the establishment of CHEA, much of the conversation among college and university presidents stressed these disconnects. Some argued, for example, that accreditation was neither useful nor efficient. They were concerned about the number of accreditation organizations and the pressure they believed some specialized or professional accrediting organizations were placing on their institutions. Others objected to the amount of time and other resources that had to be invested in self-studies and site visits --- activities, they claimed, which did not always help them to improve their institutions. Still others complained that some accreditors failed to take into account the distinctive mission, purpose, and identity of an institution when applying accreditation criteria.
During this same time period, the leaders of accrediting organizations were themselves expressing divergent and sometimes incompatible views about education quality and even about what is meant by "higher" education and "postsecondary" education. Regional accreditors were concerned about maintaining the distinctions between and among their respective organizations, as pressure for greater cooperation increased. Specialized and professional accreditors were concerned about enhancing professional development within the accreditation field and enlarging their opportunities to work with each other and with a range of colleges and universities. Many questions were being raised about the extent to which the different types of accreditors formed a genuine community around which the higher education community could rally when necessary.
These various and varying "disconnects" gave rise, quite naturally, to diverse expectations about what CHEA should do and how its success should be measured. Now almost two years old, CHEA has developed and implemented a comprehensive set of strategies for moving from "disconnecting" to "reconnecting."
CHEA's challenge is to diminish the disconnects that led to its creation.
Disconnect 1: Presidents are critical of accreditation, although they believe that some form of quality assurance is important for the higher education community.
Reconnecting: CHEA's task is to provide leadership for rethinking the role of accreditation, in the context of the needs of both institutions and programs. To accomplish this, CHEA is focusing on strategies to improve the usefulness and efficiency of accreditation, believing that such improvements are necessary if increased agreement about quality assurance is to be reached. Some regional and specialized accreditation organizations have already taken steps in this direction.
Usefulness and efficiency through cooperation.
CHEA is working to encourage cooperative initiatives between and among regional and specialized accreditors and chief academic officers. Among the initiatives being discussed are cooperative visits, coordinated visit schedules, the identification of common data needs, and efforts to link self-studies and site visits to institutional strategic planning processes and goals.
Usefulness and efficiency though help with distance education.
CHEA seeks to enhance the usefulness of accreditation by taking on the critical issue of quality assurance for distance education. A recent CHEA-commissioned review explored quality assurance strategies that address the dramatic expansion and diversity of learning experiences technology can produce.
Disconnect 2: Presidents and accreditors worry about the recent expansion of the federal role in accreditation, although most want a continuing relationship in which the federal gov-ernment can look to accreditation as a measure of quality.
Reconnecting: CHEA's task is to create for itself a strong federal and national presence, enhancing the relationship of the accreditation community with the federal government, but not at the price of accrediting organizations' autonomy and self-determination.
Strong presence through a clear set of objectives for reauthorization of the higher education act.
CHEA's board of directors has established eight legislative priorities for reauthorization of the higher education act. These priorities address two major accreditation-related concerns. First is the need to sustain a division of labor between government and the voluntary accreditation community, in which quality assurance is primarily the responsibility of the latter. Second is the need to reduce the administrative burden that was added to the accreditation process in the 1992 reauthorization.
Strong presence through work with Congress.
CHEA is establishing strong relationships with congressional staff, many of whom are new since the 1992 reauthorization. The goal here is to inform these key staff members about voluntary accreditation, how it works, and its importance.
Strong presence through work with the Department of Education.
CHEA is routinely working with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education and the Office of Accreditation and Programs as well as the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.
Strong presence through working with national higher education associations.
CHEA has also created strong ties with the presidential-level higher education associations in Washington, D.C. CHEA's legislative priorities have been incorporated into the higher education community's position on reauthorization of the higher education act.
Disconnect 3: Presidents and accreditors want affirmation of quality but not regulation of quality.
CHEA's task is to become a credible, visible warrantor of quality in accreditation and thus a warrantor of quality in higher education, a needed public voice for higher education quality and improvement through self-regulation.
Affirmation of quality without regulation of quality through the development of a recognition policy that assists both accreditors and institutions.
CHEA's emerging recognition standards can affirm quality by establishing high expectations for the promotion of quality, but insisting that higher education institutions set their own quality goals Ñ goals which must be clear and focused on educational results.
Affirmation of quality without regulation of quality through the dissemination of "good practices" to assist institutions and accreditors.
CHEA is establishing an electronic database of good practices in accreditation that will help institutions and accreditors develop indicators of quality and strategies for the establishment of quality goals.
Affirmation of quality without regulation of quality through the emergence of a strong national voice for higher education quality assurance.
Through speaking engagements, publications, and public commentary, CHEA will use its research and policy analysis capacity to establish itself as the voice of quality assurance through voluntary accreditation.
Thus CHEAthe product of many concerns and forces, committed to reformhas a complex agenda, ranging from issues of usefulness and efficiency, to government relations, to public awareness. If CHEA is successful over time, the disconnections that led to its establishment will give way to reconnections that help to renew higher education purpose, accreditation purpose, and public purpose. In this way, we will all realize more fully the benefits of voluntary accreditation.
There is much to domoving from disconnecting to reconnecting.