Accreditation In The Spotlight – But What’s New?

The American Council on Education (ACE) is a national organization that seeks to provide leadership and a unifying voice for higher education. Headquartered in Washington, DC, ACE tries to influence public policy. Its impact, like that of other similarly situated organizations, is difficult to gauge. Perhaps best known for its work with college and university presidents and other high-level administrators, ACE does not speak for academia. It does, though, matter; many smart and important leaders travel under the ACE banner.

ACE recently inserted itself publicly into the debate surrounding higher education accreditation with the publication of a self-assigned task force report, Assuring Academic Quality in the 21st Century: Self-Regulation in a New Era.  Crafted at the bequest of ACE’s board, the report was authored by a blue-chip slate of presidents, chancellors, accreditation officials and higher education experts. Interestingly, the work took place apart from the ongoing efforts of NACIQI, which is the Department of Education’s blue-chip advisory panel. NACIQI has been at the center of the accreditation debates. ACE and NACIQI have co-authored letters and coordinated on some issues.

Molly Broad, the president of ACE, released the report with a hope that it would spark productive conversations throughout the higher education community. She promised that the Task Force would follow this report up with another in 2014 on the impact of ACE’s non-binding recommendations. The reports action items, which one might expect to be the meat of the document, are to:

  1. Increase the transparency of accreditation and clearly communicate its results.
  2. Increase the centrality of evidence about student success and educational quality.
  3. Take prompt, strong and public action against substandard institutions.
  4. Adopt a more “risk-sensitive” approach to regional accreditation.
  5. Seek common terminology, promote cooperation and expand participation.
  6. Enhance the cost-effectiveness of accreditation.

What is interesting, though, are not these items but the principles driving the report. Its foundation is stated clearly: “it is build upon the wide-spread recognition that  that voluntary, nongovernmental self-regulation remains the best way to assure academic quality and to demonstrate accountability.” In other words, what we do now, voluntary accreditation is the best way to go. ACE has firmly come down on the side of maintaining current practice.

This is not to say that the report argues for no change. The report makes is clear that some reform is needed. The recommendations are, in fact, not insubstantial. Nonetheless, the ACE report is emphatic in its endorsement of current practice. It asserts that accreditation is rigorous, protects institutional autonomy and academic freedom, and serves all the stakeholders.

This begs the question of how to engage the critics of higher education and regional accreditation. Costs are increasing and there are no visible markers that higher education is in any way reshaping its practices to serve more students more efficiently or effectively. The very question of quality – always a challenge for higher education – is now intimately connected with the questions of value, cost and relevance. If higher education were universally recognized as committed and engaged with issues of quality control, if colleges and universities were perceived as aggressively responding to the changing needs of the public, if there had not been decades of rancorous and contentious debate over accountability – if it were 1985 – ACE’s report would resonate. The world has changed, though, and “Assuring Academic Quality” misreads the environment and the depth of the problems academia faces.

American students and their families currently hold more than a trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt. The level and extent of the indebtedness is bound to increase. It is a staggering burden that will have an impact for generations, perhaps most tellingly in how Americans think about the value of their higher education experiences. Not only does higher education community need to ensure quality throughout, it needs to make its commitment to quality public and real. Without recurring visible evidence that academia “gets it” there will be increasingly strident demands for greater accountability.

Regional institutional accreditation is a process that is both formative (what can an institution do better) and summative (accreditation is retained, allowing an institution to award financial aid). Formative assessments are, by nature, private and developmental. Summative assessments, in contrast, are public. Institutions of higher education desperately need ongoing formative assessments to improve quality and practice. Everyone interested in quality recognizes that rigorous peer review is effective. The public, rightly, wants to see summative reports on quality. The tension – and the inadequacy – of higher education’s current practice is awkwardly captured in the ACE report:

Accreditors gather massive amounts of information about an institution in the course of a review, and not all of it is useful to the public. Indeed, providing too much information can be just as harmful as providing too little. Excessive candor may also upset the delicate balance of trust between institutions and accreditors or lead institutions to distort the information they provide.

Where else in higher education can one find such a badly stated worry about too much candor? How can academia justify that attitude to the public? Until academia wrestles with that fundamental challenge – committing itself to accountability, ongoing improvement, and real transparency, regional and voluntary accreditation will fall short. A report from an organization with ACE’s resources and reputation that pushes higher education toward that goal would have real resonance.

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