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The Contemporary Context of Accreditation:
Challenges in a Changing Environment

Robert Glidden
Ohio University

Keynote Address for
2nd CHEA "Usefulness" Conference
June 25, 1998

    Accreditation is here to stay, like it or not. You can count on it! Many college and university presidents, provosts, and vice presidents for academic affairs wish it would go away. You can count on that too! But non-governmental accreditation is too important to American higher education, and specialized accreditation is too important to the preparation of professionals in dozens of disciplines, to be dismissed lightly. So, why the controversy? Why the tension?

Some college/university people say that regional accreditation is a paper tiger, and that specialized accreditation is a case of too many tigers. And some worry about whether any accreditation process, regional or specialized, is prepared to protect us against fly-by-night distance-learning providers. One thing seems obvious: whether you regard accreditation as friend or foe depends on what role you play in higher education. Like so many other controversial topics, on this issue, "where you stand depends on where you sit." But for our purposes here at this conference, let's all sit together and work on those issues that will make accreditation more useful to our enterprise. Indeed, there are many challenges for higher education in this dynamic time, and we are all interested in instilling confidence in the public about the quality of what we do and in reminding ourselves of the need for continuous improvement. That is, after all, what accreditation is all about.

Accreditation is an American invention--in fact, it is uniquely American. Because it is a peer-review process carried out by volunteers and, at least as originally conceived, voluntary and non-governmental, it is not only American by invention but in principal as well. Like American democracy, it is not a perfect system, but also like American democracy, no one has found a better way to do what it does. To our knowledge, every other nation in the world has a federal ministry of education that governs who shall teach what, and often who shall study what and at what level. That we in the United States rely on a non-governmental, voluntary system of quality assurance is partly because our founding fathers rejected the notion of a federal educational system. They respected choice and they recognized the importance in an ideal democratic society that the intelligentsia not be controlled by the government.

The glory of the American system, then, is partly in its diversity. American postsecondary education is offered by myriad types of institutions with differing missions and in varied settings. Americans have more choice and more opportunity for education beyond secondary school than any other society in the world, and some would contend that our system of non-governmental accreditation is largely responsible for fostering and maintaining that diversity. Others would say that specialized accreditation, in particular, has not preserved diversity and choice, but rather, has been so rigid in insisting on common standards that all programs in a given discipline tend to look alike. Again, where you stand on that issue depends on where you sit.

We can agree, however, that from its origins approximately a hundred years ago, accreditation has played two very major roles in the interest of the American public. The first is to detect, eliminate, and prevent fraud and abuse. Without some nationally recognized assurance of quality, consumers of higher education could be vulnerable to all sorts of false claims by the purveyors of educational services. The unsuspecting could invest heavily for little or no return of worth. While that seems a remote possibility among most of today's colleges and universities, it is still a risk in some vocational programs and it is very much a risk in the new order of Internet-based distance education. The second purpose is to assure adequate standardization of what an academic credit represents in order to facilitate transfer of credits from one institution to another. Because institutions are so different in their approaches and in their understandings of appropriate academic rigor, it is important that some consistent terminology and understanding exist with regard to what constitutes a "credit." Accreditation's original purposes--elimination of fraud and certification of credit--are still pertinent today.

One of the functions that accreditation serves, then, is quality assurance: determining a standard of quality and performance for minimal acceptability in the interest of the public. The other is quality improvement: providing a service that is designed to improve institutions and programs through an external review process. Accreditation's challenge would be much simpler if its role were either of those tasks but not both. This is at the heart of why accreditation is controversial. Accreditation serves the public as a kind of consumer protection, offering a "Good Housekeeping Seal" for those institutions and programs that meet minimal standards, but at the same time attempting to serve as a "colleague" to the institution or program in the interest of fostering improvement.

This dilemma is exacerbated, particularly in specialized and professional accreditation, by the added dimension of conflict between the interests of a program and the interests of the whole institution. Should an accreditation visit to a "good" program insist that a program be "excellent" or "outstanding"? Or is "good" sometimes good enough? Is that a decision that should be made by the program or the institution? Certainly it is not one that should be made by the accreditor, assuming that the program meets minimal standards. These are some of the sticky and fundamental questions raised by the specialized accreditation process.

A large, complex institution is visited by multiple accrediting organizations, each with its suggestions for improvement. The typical research university holds accredited status with 20 or 30 or more different specialized accreditors. The cost of maintaining membership in that number of organizations alone causes concern for provosts and presidents and, of course, central administrators are nearly always leery of recommendations from specialized accrediting teams regarding allocations--more faculty positions, more space, equipment, library facilities, etc. Specialized visiting teams have often acted as pressure groups for the profession and for their colleagues on the faculty of the program being visited, with little concern for the institution as a whole. In fact, it is anticipated that specialized accreditors will behave in that manner, although in fairness it must be stated that accreditors are much more sophisticated and subtle about that, in this time of limited resources for all institutions, than was the case a decade or more ago. In any case, the provost of an institution with multiple accreditations must keep the interests of the institution and the mission of the whole in mind as he/she makes decisions about allocations and suggestions for improvement from specialized accreditors.

Balance between the interests of a particular program or discipline and those of an institution as a whole is the source of a healthy tension that specialized accreditation brings to American higher education. No one would argue that the perspective of the total institution is unimportant, nor would one argue that an academic program that prepares students for a particular profession should not meet the standards established by the practitioners of that profession. However, if both the accreditor and the administration of the subject institution do not understand and appreciate the need for an appropriate balance, there will be tension. The tension is certain to be present when:

  • standards for program accreditation are based on input or resource measures only, with little regard for or measurement of what students achieve;
  • standards are excessively quantitative, with no stated rationale for why specific numbers must be met (e.g., student-faculty ratios, number of volumes in the library, faculty salaries);
  • accreditation is not voluntary, i.e., when it is required by the state for graduates to practice the profession; and/or
  • an accreditor uses its authority to intrude in the internal organization or workings of the institution, e.g., demanding a change in organizational structure to accommodate the program in question.

An accrediting organization's standards are a product of the thinking and philosophy of those who set them. Accrediting standards do not descend from on high--they are developed and modified over the years by people in the accrediting organizations, usually with the involvement of institutions but perhaps not in every case. It is reasonable to expect that an organization made up of practitioners will set standards of a somewhat different nature from those made by an association of educators. Specialized accrediting groups are as different as the disciplines they represent, but even more than that, they are different according to the internal makeup or politics of their organization. Some specialized accrediting groups are made up entirely of member schools, that is, all of their member representatives, and thus those who develop their accrediting standards and procedures, are educators. Other specialized accrediting groups are complex organizations of professional societies; thus the people who establish their standards may be mostly professional practitioners. And of course, many are a combination of educators and practitioners. It is difficult and inappropriate to generalize about the behavior or attitude of specialized accreditors as a group--there are significant differences among them.

Likewise, the teams of volunteers who conduct site visits to institutions in the specialized or professional accrediting process may have widely varied make-ups, both in size and in their mix of educators and professional practitioners. Even the extent and level of training that teams of visitors have varies greatly from one accrediting organization to another. If one can generalize about this, I would say that a team of educators tends to have a more understanding attitude about another institution's problems or resource limitations than a team made up of professional practitioners. And in most instances the teams that are predominantly educators have more experience and more training for the accrediting task than do teams of practitioners (if only because educators devote more time to it). But herein lies an interesting paradox. While educators may be more understanding and thus cause less concern or problem for the administration of the subject institution, perhaps the more rigorous and thus the more valuable review comes from professional practitioners. Tension, yes, but a healthy tension!

Another interesting aspect of the difference between accreditation by professional practitioners and accreditation by educators is the conflict of philosophy that can occur between faculty and a site visit team comprising practitioners. Faculty in many professional disciplines suffer or enjoy (depending on your point of view) a tension between those with traditional academic backgrounds who tend to be more theoretically oriented, and those with professional backgrounds who tend to be more practical in orientation. A site visit by a team that is not particularly sensitive to those differences can cause interesting reactions within the visited institution.

Among the "tension creators" cited above--reliance on inputs, excessively quantitative standards, accreditation as a requirement for professional licensure, and intrusion into the affairs of institutions--some can be and are being recognized and ameliorated; others will be with us forever. The over-emphasis on inputs and resource measures is changing; more and more accreditors are reviewing and revising their need for reliance on quantitative standards. The tie of accreditation to state licensure and thus loss of the voluntary aspect of accreditation, however, is not likely to change, and from my view we must be vigilant or it will increase. In some professions as many as two-thirds of the states require graduation from an accredited program for licensure, and thus accreditation in those disciplines in those states is not voluntary at all; it is, in fact, mandatory. This may seem to be in the interest of the public, particularly where health and safety are concerned, but nevertheless, the tie of accreditation to licensure makes accreditation required, and thus places great pressure on institutions. This is a tension that is not particularly healthy.

The culture among accrediting organizations, like the culture in higher education, has been changing in the 1990s to one of increased interest and emphasis on student learning outcomes. More and more accreditors have adopted a philosophy of reducing their reliance on resource measures and quantitative standards to the extent possible, and striving instead to determine whether students are being prepared adequately. This is difficult, of course, and the more subjective the measurement the more difficult it is. While some speak about "outcomes" as being whether graduates get jobs, the more enlightened look at broader and more important outcomes. Are students learning basic skills for the profession they are entering? Are they educated broadly enough to cope with the dynamic world of the 21st century? Do their values and attitudes prepare them to be effective contributors to society? Accreditors do not attempt to take these measurements themselves, but most now insist that their accredited institutions and programs have a strategy or a system for measuring and answering questions such as these. Not only is this healthy for making appropriate judgments about the worthiness and adequacy of a particular program, but it is also perhaps the most effective means by which an accreditor can help with program and institutional improvement. Furthermore, reliance on these "real," even if difficult, measures diverts attention from resource measures. To the extent that accrediting groups make this cultural change, they meet with less resistance and greater approval from the leadership of the institutions in which they accredit programs.

It is difficult to measure the effect that specialized accreditation has had on education for the professions in this country, but in my estimation it is extensive and pervasive. Just the fact that people in the professions, through their own professional organizations, have input into the educational standards for those who will work with them and eventually succeed them is a significant factor in the advancement of the professions themselves. Could a government ministry of education accomplish that? I'm quite sure not! Could professionals have ready input into a governmental process of quality assurance, and would that be flexible and adaptive and responsive to change with the times? I seriously doubt it. American professional education has benefited enormously, it has stayed up-to-date, and it has improved as a result of the shared, peer-review system of quality assurance and quality improvement that we call accreditation.

Yes, I am a believer, but I also recognize some significant challenges for the future--the immediate future, in fact. I will conclude by citing some of those challenges, along with suggestions for how accrediting organizations may deal with them. The first question is whether accreditation will continue to be part of the solution or part of the problem as institutional cultures change. There is a dramatic (even if not yet very rapid) shift occurring on college campuses, one that recognizes the needs and learning styles of today's "digital age" students. Will accreditation first recognize and then encourage that cultural shift? The question is critical partly because, as one example, our definition and understanding of an academic credit has been based on "seat time," e.g., three hours per week in class for a three-credit-hour course. In a new teaching-learning model, institutions are taking advantage of technology and reexamining how faculty members spend their time. Class meetings may be less frequent, but student involvement in learning (we hope) will be increased because of the shift of emphasis from teaching to learning. Will accreditors be flexible enough to accept such changes? Might they even go so far as to encourage them? They will if they are sincere in their effort to measure student learning achievement rather than how many hours the students spend in class.

Other issues include the following:

Higher education institutions will be faced with increased demands for accountability from the business community, the professions, and the public, in such areas of common interest as the preparation of teachers and from parents and students who are concerned about costs. Accreditation can help institutions and programs to be more accountable, but most especially accreditors can help if they will be more open about their accreditation decisions. There are very good and understandable reasons for confidentiality on certain issues, particularly those dealing with personnel, but I believe the public will demand to know more about an institution's or a program's accredited status than yes or no.

Accreditation, like every activity within institutions, will have to assess itself with regard to "value-added" and usefulness. Business-as-usual seems always to be the easiest way, but careful examination of such matters as accrediting schedules, number of visitors required, the extent of information needed, sharing of information in common format with other accreditors, and utilizing technology to improve and facilitate the process, will be expected by those of us in institutions.

How will we deal with the assurance of quality in distance learning? More and more institutions will become engaged in offering courses of all types to people who are place-bound by family, job, or personal circumstance. The opportunities for both institutions and individuals are exciting, but there is also great opportunity here for charlatans. Furthermore, experience has shown that the institutional label on a distance-delivered course is not necessarily trustworthy as an indicator of quality in itself. How will accreditors be flexible enough and yet thorough enough to assure the public about which programs and which institutions are legitimate? This will require a great deal of thought, experimentation, and probably commitment of resources on the part of accrediting groups. They can, of course, learn from each other. That kind of research and idea and experience sharing is one of the purposes of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Will accreditation encourage innovation? The charge has been made for years that specialized accreditation, particularly, discourages innovation by applying the same standards to all programs and institutions. That charge, in my observation, has largely been false, but the question is worth asking again in this time of rapid and dramatic change in higher education. Accreditors will have to be particularly vigilant of themselves in order that they not become obsessed with protecting traditional educational processes in the interest of academic integrity and thereby denying experimentation and innovation with curricula and with teaching-learning patterns.

The CHEA philosophy is that accreditation, to improve on its past performance, must be a cooperative effort between institutions and accreditors. If the spirit and attitude about accreditation among the higher education community is one of "we" rather than "we versus they," American higher education and thus American society in general will be the winners. I hope this conference will help to foster that cooperative spirit.



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 Last Modified: December 8, 1998