• August 30, 2015

Advisory Panel Hears Concerns as It Again Considers Changes in Accreditation

For at least the third time since 1990, the issue of overhauling the nation's accreditation system is once again on the agenda of federal education officials. It was the subject of a meeting Thursday that began with a host of higher-education experts recalling problems critics have leveled at the process for at least 20 years. While accreditation has made incremental changes over that time, some believe the time for more significant change may be ripe, given the growing federal spending on student aid, scathing new attacks on the quality of college education and a national push to increase the proportion of citizens with a postsecondary degree or certificate.

The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, an 18-member panel that advises the education secretary on recognizing the nation's accrediting agencies, met Thursday to begin two days of discussion about what is working and what is not in the current accreditation system. The panel will develop recommendations on accreditation for the U.S. Education Department to consider for the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is scheduled to expire in 2013.

The committee's role in providing advice on the reauthorization is a new one. That shift has raised concerns among campus officials and accreditors that the federal government will take an even larger role in overseeing accreditation and, by extension, the academic practices and policies of colleges.

Arthur J. Rothkopf, president emeritus of Lafayette College and vice-chairman of the committee, said more federal oversight of accreditation is practically inevitable, considering the growing amount of federal money that is pouring into higher education in the form of Pell Grants for low-income students and federally backed student loans.

Colleges must be approved by a federally recognized accreditor for their students to receive federal financial aid. As federal funds for financial aid have increased to an estimated $150-billion annually, there have been calls from Congress and the White House to ensure that accreditors are adequately monitoring the academic quality and fiscal soundness of the institutions that they approve. Democratic lawmakers, in particular, have taken a pointed interest in the regulation of for-profit colleges, which are among the fastest-growing in the country and rely heavily on federal student aid to bolster their bottom lines.

Chronic Complaints

While concerns about regulating for-profit institutions has been amplified in recent years, many of the presentations given to the committee on Thursday—including by panels of federal- and state-policy experts, institutions, and accrediting organizations—focused on several dissatisfactions with accreditation that are decades old.

Among the most common complaints were that accreditors and institutions are not open enough about the process and provide too little information to the public and policy makers about how accreditation works and what it measures. Another frequent refrain was that accreditation is out of date, relying on an arcane system of regional associations that give the same imprimatur to community colleges as they do to elite research universities. Several presenters said that accreditors have a limited range of punishments to dole out, creating a simplistic pass-or-fail system that rarely weeds out even the most dismally performing institutions.

Similar concerns about accreditation have been discussed since the early 1990s, Peter T. Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit policy-analysis organization, told the committee.

Mr. Ewell and others suggested some possible changes to accreditation, including developing common language to describe how accreditors evaluate colleges. Such a framework could also lead to a more standardized set of measures that colleges could report to the public, on such factors as student retention and degree or credit completions.

Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents some 3,000 accredited institutions, argued that more standardization among accreditors would set only a minimum threshold of quality, essentially forming a ceiling for improvement rather than a floor.

Nearly all the panelists, however, were opposed to a greater federal role in regulating accreditation. "Let's not overstep by encouraging compliance at the price of collegiality," Ms. Eaton said. She supports the system of peer review that forms the backbone of the accreditation system.

Mr. Ewell also said that the pressure from Congress and the Education Department to increase accreditors' roles monitoring federal compliance would cause them to operate inconsistently with their historic role as guarantors of academic quality. Federal and state governments also play a key role in overseeing higher-education practice, he said.

Fear of Unintended Effects

Richard Arum, one of the authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press), also weighed in against more-stringent federal rules on accreditation. Mr. Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, said that more federal regulations and new accreditation mandates might just lead colleges to perform what sociologists call "symbolic compliance." That is, colleges might simply go through the motions to satisfy the accreditors' literal demands, without actually changing their general practices.

Kevin Carey, a policy analyst with Education Sector, a nonprofit group, and a contributor to The Chronicle's Brainstorm blog, and some other presenters even argued that accreditors should no longer be the gatekeepers for federal financial aid, leaving the role of monitoring the use of tax dollars to the Education Department. The role of regulating the fast-growing for-profit sector of higher education should be managed by a new consumer protection agency, Mr. Carey said, while accreditors should remain focused on ensuring academic integrity.

On Friday, the committee will begin its efforts to develop recommendations for Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

If history is any guide, however, federally mandated changes to the accreditation system will be hard won, if at all. Efforts to overhaul the system were made during the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, said David A. Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, with little impact on the process. "A lot was done, but not much change occurred," he said.

More recently, a commission convened by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who served under President George W. Bush, recommended that the federal government be able to set academic measures that accreditors would require. That recommendation was rejected by a Democratic-controlled Congress when it reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008, and the law specifically barred the Education Department from setting those standards.

But Mr. Rothkopf, the committee's vice chairman, said the group could overcome past difficulties because of the level of federal interest and the need to ensure quality in higher education as a way to improve the economy. "What's different, maybe, now is that ... we are talking about serious dollars," he said.

David Glenn contributed to this report.


1. cdwickstrom - February 04, 2011 at 10:46 am

It occurs to me that stepping back abit and looking at the bigger picture may be of significant help in this matter. Much has been written in CHE and elsewhere of late about the quality of higher education in the U.S. The ineffectiveness of accreditation systems, the lack of teaching emphasis, limited learning by undergraduates, all would seems to be symptoms rather than "diseases", per se. If we look at a bigger picture, we will find at the root of all of these problems, major goal conflict within "higher education".

The goal conflict is between the contending demands of the classroom and the "laboratory". The conflict is between imparting extant knowledge to the next generation of learners and generating new knowledge to contribute to the mix. There is little doubt which of these goal sets is seen as primary in most post-secondary education institutions above the community college level, especially in the dominant public institutional realm. Research dominates the agenda of the faculty, the academic administration and key mover and shaker activities of every institution. It dominates determination of professional success among the faculty, with tenure the apple to be plucked from the tree.

Yet, accreditation is, at its heart, focused on the processes in place to assure quality in the instruction of students, not the quality of the research obtained in the "laboratory". It is long tied to notions of classroom process and content equivalency, which allows transferrability of credits earned there. It is based on notions that the public ought to know that a certain level of quality exists in the classroom, before public funds may be expended to pay for the processes going on therein.

Is it any wonder that, at least until recently, the terms "accreditation renewal", "team visit", and the like struck fear and trembling in the hearts and minds of faculty, deans, provosts and presidents. Careers were made or broken in the process. It was the decennial time to engage in crash focus on the "classroom" stuff, as opposed to the norms of grants and publication. And now, the notions "continuous process improvement" in the classroom are striking fear throughout the realm, with good cause. It argues for parity or more between the classrom and the laboratory, which is a sea change in the longstanding goals which have driven tertiary education in this country. It would seem that the old "pass-fail" grading of the school, college or university as a whole, every ten years, must give way to ongoing evaluation of success or failure down to the indiviual classroom level, with records to substantiate it. Sea change indeed.

The unfortunate problem in all of this is that the base of the institutional pyramid are ill prepared to sustain the change. Faculty are not educated, skilled nor acculturated to maintain focus on the quality of the classroom processes, let alone "outputs" or heaven forbid "outcomes" . As professor Arum notes, the academy is indeed "adrift" insofar as classroom effort is concerned. Skilled academic administrators at all levels can likely adjust easily to shifting priorities or even goals. However, those tasked with "primary client contact" will not find the change easy, nor will tenure committees. They have a whole new set of skills to learn and a whole new language to come to understand in the process. Accreditors are going to demand it, because, "we are talking about serious dollars".

As Mr. Zimmerman said, "The times they are a changin".

2. balthazar - February 04, 2011 at 11:59 am

Time has no alternative but to change, yet believers in it follow not its precept. Fear and reluctance to follow time fashions the cornerstone of error.

3. betterschools - February 04, 2011 at 05:06 pm

What problem are we trying to solve? There are so many partially unique things to be meant by "higher education" that there is no single solution or even approach to a solution. Making the right kind of distinctions might be a good first step.

Where do we wish control to reside? Any answer carries benefits and costs. Where is that debate? Personally, I think diversity, while messy and at times even unfair, is strength. Determine in your own mind when you feel higher education was operating at its best and was most efficient. Who was regulating then and to what extent?

Keep you eye on the money. While PELL, etc. is picked up by the taxpayer, federally guaranteed student loans is a net profit center that returns cash to the federal government. Going forward, it will return more profits than before the feds took it over.

4. cdwickstrom - February 04, 2011 at 05:20 pm

The operative noun in the term "higher education" is education. Until the dominant term of reference shifts to "higher research", I believe the point can be made that that is where the emphasis ought to be placed when questions of accountability are asked. I believe that is what the Dept of Ed is saying, but until now few have been listening. The old adage about the "golden Rule" would seem to apply. You know the one, "S/he who has the gold, makes the rules."

5. mfillet - February 05, 2011 at 03:47 pm

The accreditation process is a mess....
Universities are forced to hire Ph'd's to teach who are, by the regulator's standard, AQ or Academically Qualified. Unfortunately, these people often have no real world experience and really do not want to teach and certainly do not want to mentor their students. They are most comfortable behind a computer screen writing an article, chapter or white paper. All of that is great, but it is not the core of the knowledge transfer process for which American families are paying a fortune
But if a person has a Master's degree, a ton of related work experince and has a real command of english, the best they can hope for is to be termed as PQ or Professionally Qualified. Univerwities are, of course, penalized if they hire these folks, even though they may have subject matter knowledge and expertise that goes well beyond anything offered in a Ph'D program.
Here is an important example: How many really good schools offer a Ph'D in Entrepreneurship ? Yet that is one of the most highly demanded disciplines amongst business school students.
Come on, its time to change the standards.

6. stelleen - February 07, 2011 at 05:04 pm

If the standard accreditation criteria are those identified in this article: student retention, number of courses and hours completed, then we truly are in trouble. While these are worthy criteria for looking at who (not which institution) gets federal loans and loan guarantees, they are hardly measures of what those students learned while they were there or when they got their piece of paper at the end.

The real problem is that higher education should not be viewed as a consumer-driven commodity. The benefit of higher education comes from the discipline we force our students' minds to practice while in the institution and their ability to use that discipline to identify and define problems and solutions they would miss with their normal intuition. That is harder to measure than retention, completion, or even declarative knowledge from one or more subject areas. The benefits may not even become apparent until long after they have left the institution.

We need to be careful that we understand and measure the real benefits of higher education, not what is easy to measure.

7. laurelin - February 12, 2011 at 01:32 pm

Great comment! I agree 100%.

I've been concerned about the recent push to increase the number of people in this country with college degrees. Seeing some of the programs and policies that are being put into place to respond to this push, I'm afraid that's just what they will get ... more degrees, not a better educated population. Faculty could easily solve the degree problem at no cost by just handing out all A's. Getting more people a better education is a whole lot more complicated and more costly. Accreditation should be about improving education, but I'm not at all sure that's where it is headed.

I'm sorry you are having to work in such a discouraging environment. I've been at four universities (teaching at three of them), and I know lots of Ph.D.'s who are current in their field, like working with people as much as they like research, are great mentors to students and junior faculty alike, and are great at conveying information and creating an environment for the discipline stelleen talks about. At my current university we have some great P.Q. folks who make wonderful contributions to our program. P.Q. still means 'qualified', by the way; it is a perfectly good status.

I disagree that universities are penalized for hiring P.Q. faculty. Universities need a mix of faculty ... need both A.Q. and P.Q. people ... to create a rich environment for both students and faculty. The A.Q./P.Q. ratio may vary based on the mission of the school, but once you've reached your quota for P.Q., you just can't hire any more folks in that category. It is reasonable for that ratio to favor A.Q. people at institutions which engage in a lot of research and favor P.Q. people at 4-year and junior colleges where little research is done. We don't need to change the standards. I suspect you need to find a better match in terms of institutions.

I must, however, agree with you about the accreditation process being a mess. When my college of business was re-accredited (AACSB), the visit team missed a lot of serious problems that were not difficult to spot (in my opinion, anyway). I was very much disillusioned.

I hope accreditation criteria are changed to reflect improving the educational process itself, not retention and graduation rates.

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