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Volume 1, Number 2, October 5, 2005
“The Best in the World”?
“America’s system of higher education is the best in the world” reported The Economist in a recent issue (September 10, 2005), pointing out that U.S. higher education employs 70 percent of the world’s Nobel prize winners and produces approximately 30 percent of the world’s science and engineering articles. The Economist went on to say that “...a larger proportion of the population goes on to higher education in America than almost anywhere else, with about a third of college-aged people getting first degrees and about a third of those continuing to get advanced degrees.”

Why is the U.S. system the best? “That is because there is no system.” According to The Economist, the most important factor in our success is the way we are organized. The federal government plays a limited role: There is no ministry of education or “central plan” for higher education; academics are not civil servants; and funding sources are diversified with a robust tradition of private giving that augments and perhaps mitigates reliance on public funding.

We can enjoy The Economist’s praise of U.S. higher education – even if we find it a bit excessive and perhaps focused too much on the elite sector of higher education with the talk of Nobel prizes, science and engineering publications. At the same time, the article’s contention that we are “not a system” does raise some questions. Granted that we are not structured as a system, we are nonetheless an easily identifiable and definitive enterprise. What holds us together?

My own view is at least that part of what holds us together is our longstanding commitment to self-regulation through accreditation. I say this for two reasons. First, thousands of institutions and programs engage in a similar process of periodic external quality review. While details vary, these reviews are made up of the same fundamentals: self-study, peer review and a judgment based on standards. The accreditation process frames the quality dialogue throughout higher education.

Second, accreditation standards themselves are built on and reflect certain core values of the academy that are longstanding and central to our self perception. Of these, the most important are 1) the centrality of institutional mission, (2) the autonomy of our institutions and (3) the academic freedom of our faculty. These values, too, are part of the shared quality dialogue.

All accreditation starts with mission. A mission-based approach means that expectations of the quality and performance of individual institutions are grounded in the purposes that each college and university had been created to serve. Our academic expectations of the nearby private liberal arts college, for example, differ from our expectations of a local institute of technology. This commitment has unleashed a rich and diverse array of more than 7,000 accredited colleges and universities in the United States, ranging from open admission training institutions to our most selective research universities and liberal arts colleges – each focused on serving students in its particular way.

Accreditation standards embrace “institutional autonomy,” calling for responsible self-direction from our colleges and universities in academic decision making and the conclusions we reach about, e.g., curriculum and academic standards. “Autonomy” does not mean that colleges and universities act alone and ignore others, but that we have a responsibility to provide leadership in academic matters in consultation with our constituents. Absent institutional autonomy, the flexibility and innovation of our institutions would be seriously compromised. We might be a more homogenized system with less richness or capacity for responsiveness and nimbleness.

Accreditation standards that focus on “academic freedom” address the longstanding and respected tradition of independent inquiry in higher education. Responsible use of this freedom is fundamental to the robustness and diversity of the academic climate. When properly used, academic freedom has helped to produce significant intellectual accomplishment on the part of academic faculty. Academic freedom has been part of attracting outstanding scholars from around the world to the United States.

In sum, accreditation helps hold us together because we all participate in its processes and because its standards are built upon and reinforce our core values. Expectations of quality derive from the fundamental purposes of a college or university, supporting the commitment to mission. Accreditation standards, through the obligation that colleges and universities maintain institutional autonomy as well as sustain a vibrant commitment to academic freedom, help to preserve the responsible self determination of both institutions and faculty in matters related to academic quality. While The Economist article does not discuss accreditation per se, it is clear that the core values we prize underpin what they find to be the “best in the world.”

If accreditation plays a key role in holding us together for quality, it thus bears some responsibility if there are problematic issues related to what we do. Going back to The Economist for a moment, the article does remind us of some criticisms of higher education, pointing to allegations of “political correctness” and complaints that colleges and universities are not as devoted to free inquiry as might be desired. It mentions criticisms about neglect of undergraduate education and about the price of higher education. The article refers to evidence of erosion of public admiration of higher education as well as diminution of higher education as a successful instrument of social mobility.

These criticisms have a familiar ring these days to the accrediting organizations, along with colleges and universities, that are often told that we must be increasingly accountable to the public for the results of our efforts. In the current accountability climate, “results” are usually defined as doing as much as society or government expects us to do with student achievement and institutional performance. Indeed, critics could point to The Economist's comments about undergraduate education, saying that we would be more accountable if we did more with student achievement. Or they might refer to the comments about cost and price, saying that higher education would be more accountable if we did more to reduce expenditures and tuition.

How does accreditation respond to these criticisms and, even more important, how do these criticisms affect the academic values that we have been discussing? This is the subject of the next Inside Accreditation.

Inside Accreditation is a publication intended to keep presidents of CHEA member institutions informed about developments in external quality review of higher education. Please direct any inquiries or comments to or to (202) 955-6126.

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