Introduction to themed PHE issue on accreditation in higher education: the changing role of the federal government in regulating how colleges and universities transparently demonstrate student learning outcomes is the reason for this themed issue of Planning.
I am pleased to write the introduction to this special themed issue of Planning for Higher Education, which focuses on the topic of accreditation in higher education. Accreditation is the lifeblood for most colleges and universities: without accreditation from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, no Title IV federal financial aid can flow into an institution. According to the Department of Education in its Federal Student Aid Annual Report, 2011, over $157 billion in student aid was disbursed to over 15 million students in postsecondary institutions throughout the country. Without that student aid, a significant number of institutions would simply be forced to close their doors.
The evolution of postsecondary accreditation into this financial aid "gatekeeper" role has been an interesting odyssey. Quality assurance in higher education--in other words, accreditation--is built on a completely different premise in the United States than anywhere else in the world. The U.S. model traces its origins back to the late 19th century and is predicated on a system of voluntary peer review to ensure that colleges and universities conform to standards that define excellence within postsecondary education. The terms "voluntary" and "peer review" are critical. Unlike in most other nations, there is no federal ministry overseeing quality assurance in U.S. colleges and universities. The process truly is both voluntary and peer defined. I had the good fortune to spend the past nine years as a commissioner with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one of six regional institutional accrediting bodies in the United States, including the last two as chair of the commission. During that time, I became thoroughly familiar not only with the accreditation standards and processes in the Middle States region, but also with those in the other regions as well. The concept of peer assessment--without governmental interference--of the extent to which colleges and universities comply with standards of educational excellence is a distinctly American value, a precious process we must not lose.
I have had the opportunity over the years to consult with postsecondary institutions in Europe, Australia, South America, and Canada, all of which operate within a federal ministerial model of quality assurance. While making no judgment with respect to the relative effectiveness of the ministerial model when compared with the U.S. model of voluntary peer assessment, I can tell you that the former is far more prescriptive and bureaucratic and far less sensitive to the differences between and among institutional missions within higher education systems. In my view, the defining characteristic that makes American higher education great is the diversity of institutions that compose it and the capacity of accrediting bodies to recognize and understand that diversity while striving to assure educational excellence. Of particular importance to members of the Society for College and University Planning is the insistence by all six regional accrediting entities in the United States that institutions demonstrate continuous quality improvement rooted in strategic planning that makes effective use of evidence-based assessments.
Not everyone in the United States shares my confidence in the effectiveness of a collegial approach to accreditation. As the accreditation process has evolved to its current gatekeeper role with regard to federal financial aid, and with hundreds of billions of dollars hanging in the balance, there have been increasingly more vocal calls for greater transparency and accountability in how we certify that institutions are meeting high standards in educating their students. Much of the dissatisfaction has come from employers who hire college graduates with diminished oral and written communication skills, questionable computational competencies, and inability to work collaboratively with others. The response of colleges and universities in general, and accrediting agencies in particular, has been a movement to outcomes-based evidence of compliance with accreditation standards. I find this movement to outcomes-based measures to be both exciting and fraught with peril. As external entities seek greater accountability and transparency from colleges and universities, it is imperative that the higher education community take the initiative in shaping the conversation. This is nowhere more true than in discussions on how we measure student learning. A few years ago, regional accreditors successfully argued against "one size fits all" standardized testing as a mandatory means of demonstrating student learning in higher education institutions. But we have yet to develop a lexicon for describing how we are assessing student learning in a language that is comprehensible to those outside the academy. And we dally at our own peril, for if we don't do it, it will be done to us. There is significant pressure for greater federal involvement in the quality assurance process in higher education. Those of us who have been in higher education for decades remember the push for State Postsecondary Review Entities in the 1990s and the potentially damaging metrics associated with them. Do we really want to revisit a comparable scenario?
This is the broad context for this special themed issue of Planning for Higher Education. We are pleased to present five invited articles from individuals at the epicenter of current conversations concerning higher education accreditation. The immediate future of accreditation will most certainly be shaped by the tension between and among postsecondary institutions, accreditors, and the federal government. The government wants accreditation to become more regulatory, while institutions are seeking ways to provide more and better evidence of compliance with standards of excellence. Accrediting bodies are caught in the middle. Our first two authors in this issue give us a glimpse of what the future of accreditation may hold, the first from the perspective of accrediting bodies and the second from the vantage point of institutions. Judith Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), the umbrella organization for 60 recognized institutional and programmatic accrediting agencies. Representing those agencies, CHEA is a primary voice for advocacy for voluntary accreditation and quality assurance to Congress, the Department of Education, and the general public. Terry Hartle is the senior vice president in the Office of Government Relations at the American Council on Education (ACE), a membership organization embracing over 1,800 colleges and universities across the country. ACE has been a highly effective voice in articulating institutional concerns with regard to accreditation to the same audiences as CHEA.
While their organizational constituencies are different, the articles by Drs. Eaton and Hartle display striking similarities in assessing the threats and opportunities in higher education accreditation as we know it and provide a solid context for those of us in higher education planning as we address those threats and opportunities. Beth Sibolski is president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and, as a past president of the Society for College and University Planning, has a particular sensitivity to how accreditation issues impact higher education planners. Her article picks up on a central thread in the Eaton and Hartle articles--the inherent tension between governmental insistence that accreditors be regulatory police and the commitment of regional accreditors to assisting member institutions with continuous improvement and development of clear evidence of compliance with quality standards. Stephen Spangehl is vice president for accreditation relations at the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the largest regional institutional accrediting body in the United States. He describes how HLC's Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) serves as an innovative process that focuses institutions on improving quality and performance while also generating solid evidence that they meet accreditation standards. I mentioned earlier in this introduction the paramount importance of developing appropriate methodologies and lexicons for describing student learning outcomes. Terrel Rhodes is vice president for quality, curriculum, and assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). He was also a principal investigator on a major grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) that examined, among other things, design of tools that would enable accurate and understandable assessment of student mastery of general education competencies such as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, oral and written communication, information literacy, etc. His article describes the development of innovative VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics for evaluating student work and discusses the utility of these rubrics in comparison to other approaches to evaluating mastery of general education competencies that have been so forcefully demanded by employers and others. The capacity to have effective measures of student learning outcomes is an essential component in a higher education planner's toolbox.
The implications for planners of the issues raised in these five articles are both immediate and profound. How does higher education preserve and protect the integrity of the peer evaluation process in quality assurance and, at the same time, responsibly address calls for greater transparency and accountability from the government and other entities? How do colleges and universities best work with their regional accrediting bodies to ensure the integrity of educational services provided under Title IV financial aid without having those accrediting bodies morph into the "accreditation police"? And at the very core of the quality assurance process is the necessity for colleges and universities to clearly and unambiguously demonstrate student mastery of both discipline-specific and general education competencies in a fashion that is transparent to those both inside and outside of the academy. The editorial staff of Planning for Higher Education is deeply grateful to the five authors who have so generously contributed to this issue of the journal. Their insights are quite provocative and provide substantial material for those of us whose planning activity is immersed in improving the quality of our institutions.
Michael F. Middaugh is the executive editor of Planning for Higher Education, the journal of the Society for College and University Planning. He formerly served as the associate provost for institutional effectiveness at the University of Delaware and as the chair of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.