June 12, 1998
By the time the current commencement season is over, over a million graduates of the more than 3,000 colleges and universities that are institutional members of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) will have received their diplomas. I speculate that few if any of the participants in those ceremonies gave much thought to the efforts it took to assure that the education they received was of the highest quality--a central issue for CHEA and its institutional members. In fact, I doubt that the word "accreditation" even was uttered, though on that score I would be happy to stand corrected.
Quality is what our students seek in higher education, and what they assume will be provided. Yet this confidence with which our industry is regarded was hard-won, and its preservation requires constant vigilance and attention. Accreditation remains at the core of higher education's largely hidden substructure of quality assurance. And while we sometimes complain about the burdens or the costs it imposes, I believe it is almost universally understood by the leaders of our colleges and universities, and much of the faculty as well, that our unique standing in the public eye, and in the view of most policy makers, depends on a strong system of self-regulation. That is why, in setting the course for this young organization, the CHEA Board of Directors and I have agreed that the key message we need to send is that higher education is intent on justifying the confidence of the public and its continuing investment in our institutions.
In the policy arena, CHEA has sought to communicate this message to officials on Capitol Hill, in the administration, and within higher education circles. With Congress working toward reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, our timing has been fortuitous. Proposals to strengthen the federal role in quality assurance at the price of voluntary self-regulation have posed an opportunity as well as a challenge, and CHEA has responded vigorously. Our voice has been heard by members of Congress and key staff, and we have discouraged several initiatives that, if enacted, would have undermined the autonomy and self-determination of our institutions. Whether the issue has been the elimination of SPRES, regulation of distance learning, or efforts to add administrative burdens to accreditation standards, reauthorization has brought us together in common cause with other Washington-based higher education organizations. The result is a strong partnership that is growing and will stand us in good stead for many years. Accreditation issues are now in the mainstream of higher education policy deliberations.
With CHEA nearing the end of its second year of existence, we also can point to other indicators of success. Our institution and organization membership has grown, along with our revenue base. In addition to the membership survey I will discuss later, we have distributed a well-received publication, Assuring Quality in Distance Learning: A Preliminary Review, and, of particular interest to the accreditation community, another study, Recognition of Accrediting Organizations: A Comparison of Policy and Practice of Voluntary Accreditation and the United States Department of Education. Our work on the first CHEA Recognition Policy is almost complete. This document outlines CHEA's own quality standards for the accrediting organizations we recognize. Our policy will, in turn, influence the standards these organizations set for the institutions they accredit. We also have spent some time this year on planning, developing an ambitious research and policy agenda informed by two major issues: defining quality as results and quality assurance in emerging distance learning institutions and programs.
As perhaps the newest higher education association, we also felt it important to learn more about our constituents' priorities for CHEA, the products and services you would like us to develop, and the role you think we should play in addressing current and emerging issues related to accreditation. To gather that information, we worked with MGT of America, Inc., a survey research firm located in Tallahassee, FL, to develop a questionnaire that was mailed last November to more than 3,600 degree-granting institutions and another that was sent to 126 accrediting organizations and national higher education associations. The response was gratifying. Altogether, 1,185 institutions and 57 organizations and associations returned the survey form--an over-all response rate of almost 33 percent. Because part of our mission is to serve as an objective source of research and information, we also used the survey to collect some baseline information on the accreditation process from both groups. I have enclosed a copy of the executive summary of the survey report for your review.
Our institutional members primarily want three products and services from CHEA:
- representing the accrediting community to the federal government;
- bringing together accreditors and academic leaders to help coordinate and enhance the accreditation process; and
- acting as a clearinghouse for best practices in quality assurance and accreditation.
Our organizational members also identified the first two items above as their top choices among possible products and services, but they listed "providing research reports and other publications on quality assurance and accreditation-related issues" third, with "explaining to the public at large the role of accreditation as quality assurance" a close fourth.
On the question of which accreditation-related issues CHEA should address, our institutional members identified the following as top priorities:
- accreditation and student learning outcomes;
- increasing the usefulness of accreditation through expanding cooperation among regional and specialized/professional/national accreditors; and
- accreditation and the challenge of distance education.
Our organizational members agreed on the primacy of accreditation and student learning outcomes, but identified two other issues as high priorities:
- accreditation and quality assurance, and
- accreditation and public accountability.
Collectively, these priorities reflect a high degree of consensus among colleges and universities, accrediting organizations, and higher education associations. But what accounts for the variances? I don't wish to make too much of what in some cases are minor differences, since, once you get past the top one or two items, many of the others are clustered fairly closely together. However, the discrepancies between the two groups seem to reflect their distinct concerns. Institutions generally gave higher priority to those activities and issues related to what they see as the problems of accreditation: the need for greater coordination and cooperation among accrediting agencies, increasing the usefulness of accreditation, and propagating best practices. For accrediting organizations and higher education associations, the focus was more external: increasing understanding of accreditation among policy makers and the public and conducting research on quality assurance. The task for CHEA, it would seem, is to build on the core consensus that exists among its constituents by providing leadership in those areas where their points of view may diverge.
In the second part of the survey, we asked both institutions and accrediting organizations several questions related to accrediting activities, including the resources they devote to them. Much of this information never has been collected before, and all of it is self-reported and unverified. The responses raise more questions than they
answer, but we are going ahead and sharing the information with you.
Particularly regarding the issue of resources, our intent was not to reach a definitive answer to the question of what it costs to conduct accreditation, but to see what participants think it costs, to get a sense of the range, and to provide a baseline for future research and data-gathering. For example, in calculating the cost of their most recent regional, specialized, professional, and national accreditation reviews, institutions were asked to estimate how much they had spent in direct and in-kind expenditures (e.g., staff time, supplies, and materials). However, we suspect that few institutions attempted a comprehensive accounting of these costs, and without a uniform methodology, such calculations could vary significantly from one institution to another. Of course, the results also don't tell us anything about what institutions spend over time to comply with accreditation requirements.
Nevertheless, the answers are of interest. Among the findings from this section of the survey:
- Institutions reported spending, on average, from $6,253 (proprietary institutions) to $63,000 (public four-year institutions) on their most recent regional accreditation review.
- Institutions reported spending from $5,327 (public two-year institutions) to $21,338 (public graduate-only institutions) per specialized accreditation review.
- Accrediting organizations reported that, on average, they charged colleges and universities from $2,970 (regional accreditors) to $3,133 (specialized accreditors) for an accreditation visit.
- Accrediting organizations reported that they spent, on average, from $5,278 (regional accreditors) to $7,690 (specialized accreditors) for each accreditation visit they conducted.
These results indicate the need for more systematic research on the costs institutions incur when they undergo accreditation reviews and how those costs vary by region and institutional type. While at first blush the figures reported in our survey do not seem extravagant, further research might point the way toward more uniform procedures and potential savings.
Copies of the full report, Survey of Degree-Granting Institutions, Accrediting Organizations, and Higher Education Associations, are available for $14.95, prepaid, from CHEA, One Dupont Circle, Suite 510, Washington, DC 20036-1135.
By listening to our members' priorities and exercising leadership on the issues that concern them, we can demonstrate that CHEA has a vital role to play in the higher education arena and deserves the support and good will we already have received. Our forthcoming 1997-98 Annual Report will detail the results of our many efforts over the past year. As with our colleges and universities, CHEA must have its own strong system of self-review. And, for you to be confident that we are providing the leadership and service in quality assurance for which you have asked, that system must emphasize results. Our success is defined by contributing in some way to your success.
After less than a year on the job, I am pleased with the progress we've made. I look forward to the future, and wish you a relaxing and enjoyable summer.
Judith S. Eaton