One of the most important aims of higher education accreditation is accountability to the public, an affirmation of an institution’s value, worth and commitment. Institutions are not “regulated.” Instead, they are accredited. Accreditation provides a seal of approval. Or at least that is what many of us within academia respond with when asked about standards.
Each of the nation’s regional accrediting agencies provides a framework for accreditation in its area. Each regional agency has its own standards, but there is significant overlap across the country. Regional accreditation allows an institution to tap federal financial aid, the financial lifeblood of higher education. It is certainly theoretically possible to be a fine academic institution and not be accredited, but without financial aid, not very likely at all.
NEASC, New England’s regional accrediting agency, has 11 standards. These standards are given a substantive review every ten years, with a briefer look every five years. Any changes in standards are voted upon by the membership. This autumn I participated in one of several NEASC sponsored discussion about two of the standards, integrity and public disclosure.
STANDARD ELEVEN: INTEGRITY
The institution subscribes to and advocates high ethical standards in the management of its affairs and in all of its dealings with students, faculty, staff, its governing board, external agencies and organizations, and the general public. Through its policies and practices, the institution endeavors to exemplify the values it articulates in its mission and related statements.
STANDARD TEN: PUBLIC DISCLOSURE
In presenting itself to students, prospective students, and other members of the interested public, the institution provides information that is complete, accurate, accessible, clear and sufficient for intended audiences to make informed decisions about the institution.
While all standards are examined, there was significant interest in these two because of the very issue of regional accreditation and its worth to the public. Further, the reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act highlighted the importance of accountability to all of us at the meeting and for all of us in academia who are paying attention. The lengthy law is studded with regulations, requirements and unfunded mandates for all institutions of higher education. We are regulated, whether we realize it or not. Ask a registrar, who often is the campus official charged with compliance. Or the person in charge of financial aid. Larger institutions now have compliance officers.
A recurring theme woven throughout the law is an attempt to make institutions of higher education more transparent to the public. A worthy aim, transparency and accountability are detailed in unusual ways in the Act. In fact, part of the law goes so far as to suggest numbers of clicks by which a person might navigate from an institution’s home page to some particular bit of required legislation (the answer is three). Compliance with federal law goes a very long way in addressing much of what is in the current NEASC standard ten.
Disclosure and integrity are closely related, but have different purposes and play out different ways. Disclosure, by far, is the easier to examine and pursue. In essence it is a checklist, a series of protocols to publish, post, send and report. Moreover, the general belief that consistency in reporting will inform consumers and enable better decision-making, has served as a landing but for the legislation and the higher education accreditation agencies and lobbyists who debated the law. While colleges cannot post calories or ingredients, they can put graduation rates, average student debt, and a host of other information on the web. And I am very curious about the impact of these changes on prospective student behavior.
Integrity, on the other hand, is a much harder nut to crack. Integrity to what? For whom? The short answer is integrity to the mission, but that pushes the question away from the public. Just about everyone has a working concept of integrity. Practical knowledge of a institution’s mission is much more elusive. Public institutions always affirm a commitment to the public in mission statements, but so, too, do most private institutions. A mission statement’s affirmation of service to the public is a weak reed on which to build a house with integrity.