Trends in Accreditation: What Matters to Governing Boards

By Judith S. Eaton    //    Volume 27,  Number 5   //    September/October 2019

Governing boards can provide key leadership for greater accountability and innovation in the accreditation process as well as address the challenges posed by the trends shaping the current direction and operation of accreditation.

Governing boards are well aware that accreditation, the primary means by which higher education assures and improves quality, plays a key role in their colleges and universities. Obtaining and sustaining accredited status is pivotal to an institution’s reputation, competitiveness, and finances, and thus awareness of the current state of accreditation and emerging trends in the process is quite valuable. What happens to accrediting organizations happens to institutions. How is the current state of accreditation affecting institutions and how might emerging trends influence the future of colleges and universities? What about accreditation is important to governing boards?

Accredited status is essential to public confidence in a college or university. “We are accredited” is often a first response when an institution is questioned about the quality and effectiveness of its programs. Accreditation is a threshold requirement for any college or university considered to be a legitimate higher education provider.

Accredited status is essential to obtaining public or private funds. Accreditation by an accrediting organization that is reviewed and approved by the federal government (a process known as “recognition”) is required to receive federal and, at times, state funds for student grants and loans as well as funds for various programs and for research. Foundations and corporations giving funds to institutions often require that a college or university be accredited. Unions often provide financial support for additional education for their members—as long as the employees attend accredited institutions.

Accreditation is also vital to student mobility. As students graduate or complete their other education goals, obtaining or upgrading employment often depends on having attended an accredited school. If undergraduates seek to transfer from one institution to another or to enter graduate school upon obtaining a degree, accredited status for the college or university from which a student wishes to move is essential. International students coming to the United States are interested in attending only accredited institutions.

Accreditation has been a part of higher education for more than 100 years. It is a decentralized, nongovernmental enterprise created by colleges and universities and, to this day, remains funded, managed, and governed by higher education. The 85 accrediting organizations that are currently recognized are independent, each with its own standards, policies, processes, and funding. While accrediting organizations sustain a cadre of professional staff members, the major functions of the organization are carried out by members of the academy (faculty, academic administrators, and, at times, governing board members). Academics serve as volunteers on accreditation commissions and councils and establish accreditation standards, carry out periodic reviews of colleges and universities, and decide accredited status. Academics determine the funding and staffing of accrediting organizations. These volunteers have numbered 15,000 to 20,000 per year over the last decade.

Given its long history, accreditation both reflects and supports the core values of higher education. These include the importance of institutional autonomy to sustaining the intellectual leadership of the academy and the value of a mission-based approach to judging academic quality. They also include the centrality of peer review—academics judging academics—and formative evaluation in determining quality, as well as the urgent need to sustain academic freedom. Accrediting organizations’ efforts to assure and improve quality are built on this foundation.

Three major trends are shaping the current direction and operation of accreditation. The first is the current demand for greater accountability from accreditation, focusing particular attention on student achievement and transparency. The second is the pressure on accreditation to provide more leadership for change and innovation. The third is the growing role of the federal government in what has heretofore been the core work and primary responsibility of accreditation: judging academic quality.

Trend 1: Greater Accountability from Accreditation

The demand for accountability is coming from many actors: the media, think tanks, the government, and students. “Accountability” from accrediting organizations is about whether accredited status is a reliable indicator that a college or university is serving students well—student achievement being viewed as central. Are these students graduating or completing other educational goals? Do these students obtain jobs and are they on a path to strong earnings? Are students able to manage any debt incurred in obtaining their education or are they burdened with debt repayment that is difficult to sustain? These actors want to know why institutions that serve students poorly obtain or sustain accredited status. Accreditors are also routinely challenged to strengthen their standards of student achievement, for example, to set clear minimums (“bright lines”) for performance that institutions are to meet, such as graduation rates, jobs, and earnings.

With regard to transparency, is accreditation providing enough readily accessible and understandable information to the public about how an accrediting organization operates and sharing details about the accredited status of its institutions and programs? Does the public routinely know why this status was awarded and how well accredited institutions and programs are performing? There are calls for accrediting organizations to provide clear and definitive information about the shortcomings of institutions that are substandard yet continue to be accredited, and questions are being raised about why accreditors do not play a stronger role in making sure that poorly performing institutions quickly strengthen their performance or lose accreditation.

Trend 2: Accreditation Leadership in Change and Innovation

As governing boards are well aware, higher education is experiencing significant diversification, and, colleges, universities, and accreditors are being called upon to respond. Diversification includes the changing student population  and significant efforts are being put forth to expand enrollment and service to low-income and minority students throughout all of higher education, not to only some types of institutions. A major emphasis here is on higher education’s responsiveness in more robustly addressing social justice and equity within society.

Diversification is also about the recent emergence of alternative providers of postsecondary or higher education: companies that initially offered nondegree, online course-level offerings. These include massive open online providers [for example, Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) and edX (https://www.edx.org/course)] that are now also offering certificates and degrees, either independently or in partnership with traditional institutions. Diversification includes the emergence of private companies such as StraighterLine that sustain both career and general education offerings at low cost and place a premium on transfer and articulation agreements with traditional institutions. These agreements are intended to enhance student mobility. Online program managers such as Academic Partnerships https://www.academicpartnerships.com/are other examples of this diversification, assisting traditional institutions with developing online offerings, advising students, and managing enrollment—tasks that have historically been handled by faculty and academic administrators.

A third element of diversification is technology. Artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, augmented reality, and other tools are having a significant impact on all major functions of a college or university. These functions include teaching and learning, student support services, and research. Technology is fueling the expansion of online learning and providing valuable real-time information about student performance in the classroom. It is enriching curricular content and providing tools to aid counselors and academic advisors as they assist students in making educational choices, helping students to stay in school and to maintain a school-life balance.

How responsive is accreditation in assisting institutions in leading change and innovation?  A recent survey of accrediting organizations and innovation commissioned by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (forthcoming) reveals that these organizations see themselves as moderately innovative, pointing particularly to their efforts with distance learning and competency-based education. Some accrediting organizations are engaged in reviewing partnerships between newly emerging alternative providers and traditional institutions as part of their commitment to innovation.

At the same time, there is considerable pressure on accreditation to more fully embrace and lead innovation by streamlining the requirements that institutions must meet to engage in new and innovative practices, encouraging such efforts to better serve students. Accreditors are also called upon to broaden the universe of what they accredit by agreeing to review stand-alone alternative providers—new types of educational entities—apart from any partnership with traditional institutions. Accreditors are at times viewed as standing in the way of innovation because their standards and practices are still based on traditional higher education practices that may not apply to these alternative providers or force the providers to obtain accreditation—to become more like their traditional counterparts, thereby diminishing the extent of efforts at innovation.

Trend 3:  The Role of the Federal Government in Judging Quality and the Impact on Accreditation

The federal government has a powerful and growing influence on accreditation and institutions through judging quality by means of the periodic federal review (recognition) of accrediting organizations. Standards for recognition are to be found in federal law, and federal regulations provide the framework to meet the obligations in the law. The federal standards address student achievement, curriculum, faculty, student services, and finances, among other areas. A review of the policies and standards that accrediting organizations use to examine colleges and universities show that these organizations call on institutions to meet these federal requirements or inform institutions that the federal requirements are the basis of some accreditation standards and policies.

At present, both the executive branch—through the U.S. Department of Education—and Congress are examining federal regulation and law as it applies to accreditation. The Department of Education has recently undertaken a major examination of the regulations that apply to the review of accrediting organizations (“negotiated rulemaking”). The revised regulations are complex and not yet final (https://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/reg/hearulemaking/2018/index.html). If finalized, the revisions include greater emphasis on both accountability and innovation—the two trends described above—as these affect accreditors’ judgment of academic quality.

Congress has long been discussing a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (https://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/leg/hea08/index.html), the federal law governing higher education that is periodically reapproved and includes oversight of student financial aid and accreditation. While neither the U.S. House of Representatives nor the U.S. Senate has a formal reauthorization bill under consideration, the several years of discussion about the law in relation to accreditation include expanded attention to accountability for academic quality from accreditation, especially how well student achievement is addressed—in terms of graduation rates, jobs, earnings, and student indebtedness. There have also been suggestions about developing separate federal accountability standards or measures—apart from accreditation—such as threshold graduation rates for an institution to be accredited.

The government focus on innovation is emerging as both a pressure and an opportunity for accreditation. The recent negotiated rulemaking allows accrediting organizations to more fully engage innovation, strengthening the opportunity for leadership here. At the same time, significant concerns have emerged that such efforts will enable continuation of what are perceived as weak accreditation practices, to the detriment of students. For example, the new regulations provide additional opportunity for institutions to explore innovations in teaching and learning while sustaining accredited status but with less scrutiny from an accreditor. However, concerns are being raised that such opportunities include too much risk for students because assuring quality has not been adequately addressed.

In addition, both the U.S. Department of Education and Congress have invested considerable effort in expanding the data tools used to examine both the performance of accrediting organizations and the institutions and programs that are accredited. This development has enlarged the government presence in discussions and judgments about quality. Whether through such databases as College Scorecard (https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/), College Navigator (https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/), Accreditor Dashboards (https://sites.ed.gov/naciqi/archive-of-meetings/), or the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (https://ope.ed.gov/dapip/#/home), the government collects increasing amounts of information about quality and is making this information more readily available to the public. A bipartisan bill introduced in both the House and the Senate, the College Transparency Act (https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/800/text), would further expand the data that government can collect, providing additional information for these data sets and opportunity to judge quality.

There is little likelihood that the emphasis on accountability, innovation, and a stronger government role in academic quality will diminish in the near term. And, governing boards are instrumental in preserving the core values of higher education and their institutions—institutional autonomy, quality determined based on mission, peer review, and formative evaluation and academic freedom—the key strengths of the higher education enterprise. To address these trends and sustain these values, governing boards would benefit from considering the following, working collaboratively with their chief executive officers and the senior leadership of their colleges and universities:

  • Increase institutional attention and ownership of accountability, especially with respect to student achievement. Almost any institution’s website provides accessible information—for example, about how to donate to the institution or a description of its athletic prowess, for example—than information about its student body. Higher education needs to do more to focus and act on information about achievement, including paying attention to when institutional performance needs to be improved and making public how well students are served.
  • Place major emphasis on desirable and needed innovation. The purposes and delivery of higher education are changing, driving the diversification discussed above. Governing boards would benefit their institutions by thinking “other than,” calibrating creativity and willingness to take risk. Governing boards are essential to providing the freedom to change and cushioning the risks associated with these efforts.
  • Play a larger and more influential role in federal policy related to accreditation. Governing board attention is already focused on resources—how to improve the finances of a college or university by means of available resources. Right now, however, governing boards are also needed to make the case for higher education sustaining its leadership role in defining and judging academic quality, and not acquiescing to any federal policy that would usurp this role. Accrediting organizations alone cannot protect the leadership role without such assistance.

We in the higher education community must lead, not follow, these trends that are affecting accreditation, colleges, and universities. Governing boards are vital in sustaining and making this leadership role more robust.

Judith S. Eaton is the president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

QUESTIONS FOR GOVERNING BOARDS

·         Are you satisfied with the extent to which your institution is accountable to students and the public? Is your institution setting expectations for student achievement, obtaining evidence of student achievement, and using this information to judge the performance of the institution when it comes to student success?

·         Is there a transparency audit of your institution that would inform the governing board about how readily students and the public obtain current and reliable information about student success and key functions of the institution?  How does your governing board judge institutional transparency in relation to its own decision making?

·         What activities at your institution do you consider to be innovative, addressing the significant diversification that is now part of the higher education landscape?  How is the governing board encouraging appropriate innovation? Are board members aware of the role of accreditation here?

·         What are you doing to stay informed about the developments in federal policy, as these affect accreditation and thus your institution?  Would your governing board consider attempting to influence proposed changes in law and regulation if these changes would be deleterious to your institution and accreditation?