Inside Accreditation
Volume 5, Number 3, April 14, 2009



John D. Wiley
Chancellor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison and
Chair, Board of Directors, Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)


The following text is an approximate recreation, by the author, from speaking notes at the plenary session "Quality, Accreditation and Graduate Education: What Does the Future Hold?" at the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) Annual Meeting on December 4, 2008.

This special guest contribution to Inside Accreditation is reprinted from the March 2009 issue of The Communicator, published by the Council of Graduate Schools. CHEA gratefully acknowledges the Council of Graduate Schools for its permission to reprint this article.

The U.S. system of higher education is large, complex, and (to date) not centrally controlled. There are about 7,000 accredited institutions of post-secondary education in the country. Some are publicly controlled, some are private; some are nonprofit, some for-profit; some are degree-granting, some non degree-granting; some are secular, some affiliated with religious institutions; some offer broad "liberal" education, some are focused on specific technical or career training. This huge variety of institutional types and missions is widely viewed as one of the greatest strengths of our system, and is largely a consequence of the fact that the U.S. does not have a centralized, homogenizing Ministry of Education designing and overseeing higher education.

Classifying these institutions by highest degree granted, there are about 4,300 that grant associate's degrees or higher, about 2,200 that grant bachelor's degrees or higher, about 950 that grant master's degrees or higher, and 282 that grant Ph.D. degrees. These latter two categories presumably constitute the vast majority of the membership in the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). In our higher education landscape, the CGS members occupy an especially important niche for at least two reasons: 1) They conduct essentially all of the academic (or "basic") research in the U.S.; and 2) They educate and train essentially all the faculty for all of our institutions. For both of these reasons (and others), the CGS institutions are looked to for leadership and shoulder disproportionate responsibility for all of U.S. higher education.

So, in the absence of a Ministry of Education, who oversees and "controls" or regulates this vast collection of institutions? To some limited extent, the states play this role: States certainly oversee and control or regulate the approximately 1,700 public 2-year and 4-year institutions. In addition, the individual states must provide approvals for private institutions to operate within their borders, and control the licensure processes for practicing professionals. The federal government exercises some important oversight of higher education in fulfilling its fiduciary responsibility to assure wise use of federal funds, but has, so far, largely delegated to the states and the institutions control over everything else including, most importantly, organization, governance, and academic issues. As onerous as governmental oversight and regulation may sometimes seem to us, it is actually much lighter than in most countries where remote ministries decide and dictate almost all aspects of institutional operations. Instead, the U.S. has relied on a voluntary system of self-regulation or peer-regulation through our system of accreditation. There is no question whatsoever that this system has worked well, has served us well, and is responsible for making U.S. higher education the envy of the world. Institutions of higher education, their associations, and the American people all have a great stake in our ability to ensure that this system continues to function well and engages in continuous improvement.

So, how does accreditation work? In brief, accreditors set the standards and conditions under which institutions or programs are eligible to request accreditation. Eligible institutions then apply for accreditation, and are examined by professional staff and teams of expert examiners from peer institutions to verify assertions and data in institutional self-studies, to determine whether all accreditation standards have been met or exceeded, and to suggest areas for further improvement when appropriate. There are currently eight commissions for regional accreditation, located in six geographic regions of the country. These commissions accredit entire institutions (not individual majors or programs). In addition to the regional accreditors, there are four faith-based accrediting organizations and seven national career-related accreditors that accredit entire institutions. Finally, there are 62 programmatic or "special" accreditors that concern themselves only with the accreditation of specific programs–usually in professional fields. These 81 accreditors must, themselves, be "recognized," either by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) or by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)–a membership organization formed by essentially all the institutions that are or seek to be accredited. Speaking loosely, the accreditors are, themselves, "accredited" by USDE and/or CHEA.

To give an example of the volume of self-study and evaluation activity, in a recent year, these 81 accreditors examined over 6,800 post-secondary institutions and more than 9,000 individual programs. Several hundred thousand individual experts were engaged in these evaluations. Of the decisions that were dispositive, about 48% were decisions to grant or continue accreditation unconditionally; 43% were decisions to continue accreditation, but with certain caveats such as required revisits, shortened periods of accreditation, or other measures designed to provide heightened scrutiny until such time as that institution or program can show it should be accredited unconditionally; and about 9% were decisions involving probation, show-cause findings (warnings that accreditation is at risk unless certain deficiencies are corrected), and terminations or denials of accreditation. I don't think anyone has an objective view about what these percentages should be, but with a little over half of the decisions representing various degrees of negative or corrective feedback, it is clear that accreditation is taken very seriously by the accreditors and peer evaluators, and that the process is anything but a perfunctory, self-interested, "rubber stamp" approval.

The fundamental purpose of all this machinery of accreditation is to serve the public interest in three important, distinct ways. Accreditation serves:

  • The interests of the general public in their personal health, safety, and economic well-being;
  • The interests of government at all levels in wise, effective use of taxpayer's money; and
  • The consumer interests of students and their families in "getting what they pay for."

Saying that an institution is "accredited" must mean that the institution is unconditionally and unambiguously serving the public interests in all these ways. To the extent that the public is satisfied that accredited programs are, indeed, fulfilling their obligations in these areas, our system of voluntary self-regulation will continue, and our system of higher education will continue to thrive and continue evolving our spectacular and awesomely productive array of programmatic, mission, and institutional diversity. To the extent that the public is not satisfied, they will become cranky, demand action from government, and ultimately saddle the entire enterprise with a new set of regulatory bureaucracy and "one-size-fits-all" standards.

Today, in December of 2008, no one could think we are in any kind of "golden age" for self-regulation. Some years ago, failures of self-regulation in the savings and loan industry created a national financial crisis that cost the taxpayers billions of dollars. The Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate scandals resulted from failures of prominent, well-respected accounting firms to place the public interest above their own and their corporate client's self-interests. There is rising public anger over the failure of corporate boards of directors to keep executive compensation in line with actual performance. And we appear to be in the early stages of another massive set of failures in the banking and financial industry, resulting (in the view of many) from too much deregulation (or, put differently, too much reliance on self-regulation). So when the higher education community argues for a continuation of our current system of self-regulation, our arguments will be received in this increasingly skeptical, even hostile, environment.

You needn't try very hard, nor look very far, to find evidence of the growing skepticism. In fact, today, 12/4/08, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education released its 2008 "Report Card" on higher education. In this annual publication, each of the 50 states is given letter-grades in five areas of performance: preparation, participation, affordability, completion, and learning (outcomes). Aside from "learning," where all 50 states received grades of "incomplete," the grades are abysmal. For "affordability," there are 49 grades of "F" and one "C." This report card is already being covered in most national news media, and it is clear there will be no meaningful coverage of definitions, methodologies, or other important contextual issues–just the grades and the overall message: "Higher education is performing poorly in all 50 states."

When Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings launched her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, she observed that when her daughter was applying for admission to colleges, she found it difficult to get the most basic facts about those colleges: admission rates, retention and graduation rates, true net costs to the family, student learning outcomes, and post-graduation employment or graduate school enrollment, for example. Now, I will venture to say that most schools represented in this room do an excellent job of making it easy for applicants to obtain these and many other data. But human nature is such that we remember and talk about the "outliers" and the "outrages." Service-oriented businesses have a rule-of-thumb that, for every dissatisfied customer, you need to cultivate (create) about 25 delighted customers to compensate for the reputational damage done by the one negative outlier. That's a 96% "delighted" rate, which is a very tough rate to achieve consistently.

When I was dean of our graduate school, I use to tell all our front-line people they should treat every student as if (s)he were a celebrity: "Would you do the same thing if this student were the son or daughter of the governor of the state, or a legislator, or a regent of the university? If yes, then go ahead and do it. If no, then don't do it, because the small-world phenomenon virtually guarantees this student has a relative, or a neighbor, or a friend-of-a-friend who is, in fact, a "celebrity." When that student complains about her insensitive or outrageous treatment, she will have much more credibility than we will when we offer our explanations and excuses. In this "business" everyone is a celebrity.

During the course of the Spellings Commission's hearings and deliberations, there were lots of assertions made, and testimony given, about the alleged failings of higher education. In one meeting I attended, the claim was made that a third of U.S. college graduates are functionally illiterate. Do you believe that? Are one-third of your college graduate friends and acquaintances "functionally illiterate?" And by whose test or what definition? On the face of it, I believe that assertion as much as I would believe someone who told me they had a friend who was 25 feet tall! Still, I am confident there are some "functionally illiterate" college graduates out there, and it is our collective responsibility for having allowed them to graduate. I say "collective" because we are all responsible for maintaining the integrity of our system of self-regulation. In a system of self-regulation, we all benefit from the performance of the best schools and suffer from the abuses and reputational fallout of the worst schools (in a ratio of about 1:25).

The final report of the Spellings Commission was perhaps more temperate than most of us who attended or participated in the process feared it would be, but it was still damning. And it had consequences: This report was issued during congressional deliberations on the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which happens about every five years. At least in part as a consequence of the Spellings Commission, the new HEA contains about twice as many federal rules and reporting requirements for higher education as we had in the last HEA. It remains to be seen whether all these new rules and reports will be cost-effective, but I, for one, think they will not be. We now have about five years (between now and the next reauthorization) to do an intensive and honest self-examination, and to cooperate on identifying and fixing any perceived deficiencies. The alternative is another doubling of federal rules and reporting requirements, and/or a total repudiation of self-regulation as a viable means of assuring quality in higher education.

Who needs to cooperate? The major co-equal players in this dialogue must be: 1) the accredited institutions, 2) the presidential associations, on behalf of their member institutions, 3) CHEA, on behalf of all accredited institutions, and 4) the accrediting organizations. Obviously, USDE needs to be informed and involved as well. I left them out of the list as a matter of principle: We need to be engaged in a dialog about how to improve a system of self-regulation. In the end, if our efforts are deemed by the public to have been ineffective or inadequate, it is a virtual certainty that the president and the Congress will assign to USDE more roles moving them in the direction of a "Ministry of Education." That, in my view, would not be in anyone's interest, and especially not in the public interest.

Let me turn, at last, to issues of direct concern to you as representatives of our great system of post-baccalaureate education: deans and other officers of our graduate schools. To date, most of the attention aimed at higher education has involved undergraduate education because there are so many more undergraduates than graduate students. But, as the importance of master's, doctoral, and professional degrees increases, more and more attention will inevitably be directed at post-baccalaureate ("graduate") education. As I said at the beginning of this address, the CGS member institutions are responsible for the vast majority of basic research conducted in the U.S. When I graduated in 1968 with a Ph.D. in Physics, I could have aspired to work in any of many dozen industrial research labs where very basic research was conducted. Virtually the entire array of high-technology products we enjoy today, and a good share of today's economy, sprang from those industrial research laboratories. Today, those labs no longer exist. The future technologies our economy will depend on are being born in our university research labs. I don't think this sea-change is well or widely appreciated, but it will be eventually. In addition, CGS institutions produce the vast majority of faculty for all post-secondary institutions and this, too, will come to be more recognized and appreciated. With increasing importance come increasing responsibility and increasing scrutiny. So, while graduate schools may be "under the radar" today, they cannot expect to remain there much longer.

Having been a graduate dean myself, I think I have a good appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of our current practices. The strengths are many and legendary: They have made our system the envy of the world, and have turned U.S. graduate education into a worldwide magnet for talented graduate students, many of whom end up emigrating to the U.S. and contributing to our economy and our culture. But we must also acknowledge and address some weaknesses or failings. I am going to avoid lecturing you about those, knowing that you will be well aware of the underlying issues (and the remedies!) as soon as I mention the topics. But here are what I consider to be the five highest-priority areas that need to be addressed by the graduate deans of CGS institutions:

  1. Time-to-degree (especially time-to-Ph.D. in the Social Sciences and Humanities);
  2. Retention and graduation rates;
  3. The advisor/advisee relationship (especially Ph.D. advisors and viable remedies in the event of personality or other conflicts or disputes);
  4. Degree definitions, degree inflation, and degree proliferation (defining our "product"); and
  5. Pipeline issues.

The first two issues are essentially economic: Graduate education is expensive because it is very time- and personnel-intensive (lots of one-on-one attention). Someone pays those costs. From a macroeconomic point of view, it doesn't even matter who pays: "society" does. The economy does. Don't tell me I'm a Philistine for even daring to mention costs. Society and the economy at large establish, support, and maintain your institutions, whether you are public or private. Society and the economy provide your salaries and expect to get good (economic) value in return. Society understands and the economy recognizes the intangible and difficult-to-measure benefits of having a more sophisticated and more highly educated citizenry. They understand, recognize, and reward "knowledge for its own sake" as well as knowledge for immediate business ventures. But it is easily possible to spend so much time in school that there will never be an economic payback to society for the costs of that period in school. I would encourage all graduate deans to think about and estimate something called the "student-year cost" of a degree: Identify an entering cohort of Ph.D. candidates (It can be done!); Follow that cohort until all have left the institution, either with a degree or without one; Divide the total number of students in the cohort by the total number of degrees produced. That is the cost, in student-years of effort, of each degree produced. Society (and the students) paid that cost for each degree. If you are uncomfortable with the cost, I'm sure you will find easy and obvious ways to reduce it, through reduced attrition and shorter times to degree.

If, after a disagreement between advisor and advisee, you find yourself telling students there are no remaining viable options for completing a degree at your institution, I am sure you will find easy and obvious ways to identify such options before some court orders you to do so.

If you can provide clear, defensible, written definitions of the differences and distinctions among bachelor's, master's, and professional doctoral degrees, then degree definitions are not a problem at your institution. Somehow, as long as we have some master's programs with almost no incremental requirements, and others requiring more formal credits than most bachelors programs, I think there are no institutions that can do that. And we are all struggling with the increasing demands of professional societies to package what most of us would classify as a master's-level degree and then call it "Doctor of X." These areas need serious attention. Degrees are our "products." We should be able to define them.

And, finally, as the demographics of the country change, we must take increasingly urgent action to make sure there are viable and diverse pipelines that will deliver to us well-prepared graduate students and faculty of the future.

So, what does the future hold? It's largely in your hands.


Inside Accreditation is a publication intended to keep presidents of CHEA member institutions informed about developments in external quality review of higher education.

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