National Invitational Forum
The Emerging Context for Quality Assurance
December 9 and 10, 1999
On December 9 and 10, 1999, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) convened a group of higher education institutional leaders, policy makers and accreditors to discuss changes in higher education that may have an impact on the current role of quality assurance and the work of regional, national and specialized accreditors in the United States.
Forum participants were asked to explore the implications for quality assurance of the expanding application of information technology to classrooms and institutions, the emerging role of alternative providers of higher education (e.g., virtual universities and corporate universities), more insistent demands for accountability from government and the public, and the growing presence of the market in determining the value of higher education products and services. In preparation for the Forum, five framing questions and six Opinion Papers commenting on these questions were shared with the participants. The framing questions addressed the purpose of accreditation, its design, the demand for accreditation, its relationship to the market, and its regulatory and governmental uses.
This is not the first time that a group such as this has been convened. Many of the same participants were also involved in national discussions following the dissolution of the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation (COPA) in 1993 and prior to the establishment of CHEA in 1996.
During the 1993-96 period, much of the conversation was about changes in government policy—specifically, additional federal control of accreditation and institutions through the 1992 amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965—and what was needed to protect accreditation and self-regulation from loss of authority. The meetings were, in part, a reaction to the unwanted federal control and to the dilemma, for some, posed by COPA’s demise.
At this 1999 meeting, the conversation was about changes in higher education institutions and programs—not government or national organizations. It reflected anticipation of some rethinking of accreditation in order to forestall future problems.
The December 9-10 participants were of two minds: valuing accreditation some, yet seeking to change it in some ways. Differences emerged primarily around how much to change accreditation practice. No participant suggested that accreditation be left exactly as it is. No participant suggested that accreditation be replaced by a completely different quality assurance system.
Where Consensus Emerged about the Role of Accreditation
Participants found that there was some consensus (not unanimity) about the role of accreditation:
- Higher education is undergoing changes that require some attention from the accrediting community (e.g., distance learning and international issues challenging the boundaries of accreditation review);
- Retaining and enhancing accreditation to deal with the changes is preferable to alternatives (e.g. additional government scrutiny);
- Accreditation has the capacity to deal with the changes.
Where Differences Emerged about the Role of Accreditation
Although there was some consensus about the role of accreditation, participants found that they diverged about how to carry out accreditation’s role and how much change was needed. Differences of opinion were expressed in such areas as:
- The responsibility that accreditors have to the users of higher education—whether accreditation should retain its historic focus on assuring and improving quality from the perspective primarily of the higher education community—as distinct from increasing its attention to accreditation as certification to the public of the quality of institutions and programs.
- In what ways the major core values of accreditation—its voluntary role, its reliance on peer review, and its non-governmental status—will be honored and retained in the future.
- What kind of "stamp" accreditation is:
- Is accreditation a "good housekeeping" seal—affirming through accreditation that institutions and programs do what they advertise?
- Does accreditation function as a kind of "consumer report"—identifying and ranking institutions and programs that are considered better than others based on accreditation standards and review?
- Does accreditation function as a kind of "underwriting"—assuring audiences about the safety of using accredited institutions and programs?
- Whether the current units of analysis for accreditation (institutions and programs) will be the primary object of accreditation scrutiny in the future. Alternatively, whether courses and credentials are to become more important as units of analysis.
- Whether additional accrediting standards are needed to deal with the small but growing number of institutions and programs that are national and international in scope.
- Whether the role of student learning outcomes in determining higher education quality should receive more attention.
Responding to Consensus and Differences
Participants identified several areas where work could be undertaken to sustain the consensus and resolve the differences about the role of accreditation. These may be grouped as follows:
The Structure And Function Of Accreditation
- The public and certification of quality. Accreditation’s primary audience has been itself—colleges and universities. How do we address public calls for more information about quality and affirmation of quality?
- The role of outcomes in determining quality. Will additional attention to outcomes and the performance of institutions and students be needed in the future? How do we address this?
- Alternative models of external quality review. Are there alternative approaches to affirming quality (e.g, quality review models used outside of higher education) that could be valuable to institutions, programs and accreditors? What are they and what are the lessons to be learned?
- Institutions and programs as the units of analysis in quality review. If emerging providers and student attendance patterns are not relying on the traditional units of analysis—institutions and programs—should accreditors address additional units of analysis such as the course?
Accreditation and the States
In what ways can accreditors and states improve the exchange of information between state leaders and accreditors about the quality of institutions and programs?
Accreditation and Trustees
In what ways can accreditors and trustees work together to expand the participation of board members in the accreditation process, including the self-study, team visit and review of accreditation reports?
CHEA’s next steps will be to share this summary with participants and develop a series of projects to address responses to the areas of consensus and differences.