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Volume 2, Number 4, May 23, 2006
The Futures Commission and the Future of Accreditation

The discussion lurched from “let’s get rid of accreditation” to “ignore accreditation” to “support accreditation” to “fix accreditation” to “accreditation is valuable.” The discussants were members of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Accreditation was described as measuring only the lowest common denominator of quality, setting the bar of quality too low and getting in the way of institutional innovation—even while acknowledging that accreditation has made progress in such important areas as student learning outcomes. The venue was the commission’s public meeting in Washington DC on May 18-19, 2006.

The nature of the public discussion of accreditation is disturbing, although the commission’s work is not yet complete and several months remain before any formal recommendations are released. This is not only because much of what has been said about accreditation is negative, but mainly because so little faith or trust is expressed in accreditation as a viable force for quality for the future. It is also disturbing because, in many ways, the commission is a microcosm of accreditation’s key stakeholders: college and university presidents, faculty, the corporate sector, foundations and (former) elected and appointed government officials.

The commission’s discussions and the three accreditation Issue Papers that have been released include clear calls to “improve accreditation” or to “transform accreditation.” Accreditation needs to pay more attention to institutional performance and student learning outcomes, to additional transparency, to increased rigor in accreditation standards (moving toward “world class”) and to expanded support for innovation, especially in the for-profit sector. Accreditation needs to modify its governance and to improve the reliability of its data about quality.

One additional call, however, is of particular concern—that of aggressively nationalizing the accreditation and quality discussion—as captured by concepts such as the “National Accreditation Foundation,” the “National Accreditation Working Group,” the “National Accreditation Framework” in the commission documents. These constructs are cause for concern because they can easily lead to a single set of national standards by which to judge all of higher education quality or can lead to federalizing of accreditation, expanding direct federal control and prescriptiveness with regard to standards, policy and practice.

Where does this leave our system of accreditation? On the one hand, we have a good deal of capacity in place so that we are and can continue to be responsive to some of these calls. Accreditors have already done much work in some of these areas, such as more attention to student learning outcomes and institutional performance in accreditation standards and transparency. The two external review bodies that scrutinize accreditation for quality (“recognize” accreditors), the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), have standards that include expectations that accreditors will address these and other issues such as innovation and public participation.

On the other hand, within our system, we are also hearing echoes of “leave us alone,” “trust us” and “you don’t understand us” from some of our colleagues in accreditation and higher education. In response to the commentary of the commission, some are saying that an accreditation change agenda should proceed but should consist only of changes we like on a timetable acceptable to us. There is little acknowledgment that, in today’s society, a self-regulatory enterprise such as accreditation may now require a higher level of evidence and transparency than we are currently providing. There are few nods to the importance of additional effort to sustain faith and trust in the enterprise.

Yet, the commission conversation to date should be a wake-up call to accreditation and higher education, whatever happens with the commission’s ultimate report and proposals. We can afford neither the federalization of accreditation nor accreditation being ignored. We should not allow others to usurp our leadership role in affirming academic quality. We will all be significantly harmed by diminution of public trust and faith in the work of accreditation.

It is all too easy to envisage a scenario in which either federalization, loss of leadership or loss of faith and trust might come about. Suppose, for example, that the calls from the commission continue to gather attention and support. Suppose that the pace of change established by accreditation is simply not swift enough to constitute a viable response. Suppose that actors in the private sector step in and develop, e.g., new mechanisms to gather evidence of higher education quality in a more transparent and evidence-based way, sidelining accreditation. Even worse, the federal government might decide that it can proceed with federalizing a “single set of standards” approach to quality, even within the current legal and regulatory framework provided by the current Higher Education Act.

Alternatively, we in accreditation and higher education can use the commission as a constructive external stimulus. We can acknowledge the commission’s message, making sure that we are the leaders for change. It is in our best interest to convert the national attention that the commission has brought to accreditation from a negative to a positive.

For example, accreditation and higher education can commit to progressive proposals that address several of the commission’s calls. We can agree to:

  • Accelerate the current accreditation emphasis on evidence of institutional performance and student learning outcomes, assuring that the language of accreditation standards converts into energetic development and use of evidence of the results of teaching and learning.
  • Break the current impasse in our debate on additional transparency about accredited status, committing ourselves to more fully inform the public about what it means to be accredited.
  • Build national capacity for comparability of the key features of accredited institutions and programs, agreeing to a small set of indicators of quality that the public can use to compare institutions.
  • Focus on moving from threshold accreditation standards to greater rigor, especially as this relates to general education and the undergraduate curriculum, as part of a national effort to increase global competitiveness.

Making progress on such proposals will not be easy. First, it will require that accreditation and higher education give greater priority to directly serving the public interest than in the past. Second, we will need to confront the all-too-human tendencies toward complacency, defensiveness and resistance to change. Third and most important, it may require that accreditors and higher education leaders alike face fundamental questions about how much we value and support a strengthened accreditation system. Accreditation will have limited capacity to change unless higher education supports such efforts.

We need public faith and trust in accreditation as a force for quality in the future. We need to sustain and enhance our leadership for academic quality. We need to consider some changes in the conduct of the business of our enterprise.

Inside Accreditation is a publication intended to keep presidents of CHEA member institutions informed about developments in external quality review of higher education. Please direct any inquiries or comments to or to (202) 955-6126.

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