Ask anyone whose career is not within higher education about accreditation and you will get a blank stare. “It has something to do with quality, right?” is about the best response one can hope for. Public indifference notwithstanding, accreditation is fiercely debated in policy circles. Institutions of higher education spends millions of hours on it. Accreditation stands out as perhaps the most visible example of how higher education hopes to resist change and to stay in control of how it operates.
For the uninitiated, accreditation – usually regional accreditation – is the vehicle by which peer review assures quality to the public and quality improvement to the institution. Specialized disciplines may have specialized accreditation processes, too. Through the Higher Education Act, regional accreditation (there are six regions) is the means test that allows an institution to award federal financial aid. Accreditation, in other words, is essential for an institution of higher education. You cannot get federal support to attend an unaccredited college.
There is no one best process for accreditation. Each regional accrediting body is somewhat different and there are also variations within each regional accrediting group. They represent, or at one time represented, common communities of interest. The underlying concepts of regional accreditation are similar across the six regions and systems. Institutions share information with their accrediting body according to specified templates. Central to this activity is some form of self-study or self-inquiry. The accrediting organization is administratively thin on staff and relies upon trained higher education volunteers to review material. In other words, peers evaluate the institution and its ongoing progress. Accreditation is a state of being for an institution. A college is either accredited or not. Once an institution of higher education is accredited, it aims to remain accredited – and the nearly all institutions do just that. Losing accreditation is an extraordinarily rare phenomenon.
Critics of accreditation, who tend to come from government, foundations, and think tanks, often point to this fact as one of accreditation’s shortcomings. They also believe that accreditation is expensive, poorly structured to understand innovation, and an inadequate means of assuring quality among a range of institutions. Accreditation’s champions, usually leaders from within higher education, believe that accreditation is evolving, appropriate to nature of education, grounded in traditional academic values, and the best system amid many poor choices. As Paul L. Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State University and author of Higher Education Accreditation: How It’s Changing, Why It Must puts it, “higher education accreditation is a terrible system—but one that happens to be far better than all of the alternatives that have been proposed” (AACU).
Gaston’s book is the best overview of accreditation today. He strives to take a balanced approach, highlighting both the many ways that accreditation is changing as well as the pointed complaints of its critics. Gaston explains how higher education wound up with regional accreditation by starting with some basic and surprisingly difficult questions. What is a college? How should academic credentials at one institution be valued at another institution? What services and resources should be offered to students? As higher education has grown in scope, influence, and complexity, the charge of accreditation has expanded.
The changing nature of higher education is behind many criticisms of accreditation. The public demands more accountability, particularly as funding for so many in higher education comes from government support. This leads directly into a challenge facing students and their families today: the high cost of going to college. Accreditation was not developed to answer questions of affordability or access.
A further important change is the expansion of for-profit education and the rise of online education. They are now vital parts of the higher education landscape. Without ongoing adaptions, traditional regional accreditation processes are ill-equipped to give assurances of quality and quality improvement for for-profit and online. Gaston, though, believes that accreditation has been and will continue to change to meet these and other challenges. He sees increased attention to outputs, such as student learning and success rates, and the linkage of like institutions as evidence of positive change. Decades ago, accreditation relied upon inputs – factors like books in the library or the credentialing of faculty – to demonstrate academic quality.
Gaston makes substantive recommendations for further changes to accreditation, and he organizes them into five categories with generalized objectives.
Consensus, Alignment, Coordination speak to the challenge of variability in accrediting agencies. Gaston notes that it is possible to see the University of Cincinnati from the campus of Northern Kentucky University. Both institutions share similar student bodies, belong to the same consortium, and have many institutional affinities. However, since they are separated by the Ohio River, they are accredited by different bodies (Higher Learning Commission for UC and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for NKU). That poses significant challenges to any public investigation into the relative quality of the two institutions.
Gaston wants the regional accrediting agencies to talk with each other, to create common vocabularies, standards and processes. Consistency, he thoughtfully argues, would benefit institutions, students, and the public at large. It could help with questions around degree outcomes, transfer, and the role of specialized accreditation.
Credibility, Gaston attests, would be improved if there was consistency in accreditation. He writes that it would be additionally enhanced if accreditation were more rigorous. Accreditation needs to affirm clear values to maintain credibility with stakeholders. Efficiency is an ongoing challenge for accreditation. While the process is relatively inexpensive, it does not use data consistently or effectively. Institutional reaccreditation follows varying cadences. It is also time intensive for the institution. Agility and Creativity are necessary if accreditation will continue to adapt to new technologies, new learners, and new models of learning and credentialing. Gaston also wants to see improvements in Decisiveness and Transparency. Accreditation’s binary nature (an institution is accredited or not) does not adequately help the public with concerns about quality.
In all, Gaston presents a moderate and well-considered plan to help higher education retain peer review in accreditation and better meet public concerns. Unfortunately, no groundswell for reform exists – and its very absence speaks to the traditional mindset of many in the higher education community. His book has not received much media attention. While many organizations could champion reform, no group has taken up his call. This speaks to one of the challenges of regional accreditation, which has many stakeholders.
National organizations, like CHEA (Council of Higher Education Accreditation), characterize the policy debate as one of peer review accreditation versus governmental intrusion. CHEA, in fact, sees its role as advocating for accreditation and its expansion – not as reforming it.
Homeostasis, the desire of a system to remain internally constants even as its environment changes, is deeply woven into higher education culture and practice. Change comes very slowly and often only in response to external pressure. Gaston does not spend much time on explaining his subtitle, why accreditation must change, but he is right. Unless we take visible steps to make accreditation more relevant and meaningful to the public, pressure will justifiably increase. High quality education at affordable cost is rightfully demanded by many. The world is changing rapidly and education is the best means of adapting to it. Seems to me that higher education would be well served by acknowledging those same changes and adapt as well. All would benefit.