Accreditation and Academic Quality: A Response to the Wall Street Journal

October 6, 2015

Judith S. Eaton

Note: On October 5, 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial critical of accreditation – referring to accreditation as a “cartel” and to accrediting organizations as “an obscure network of higher education busybodies,” stating that accreditation “stifles innovation” and calling for “untangling aid and accreditation.” (The editorial can be found on the Wall Street Journal’s Website, which requires a subscription.) This is not the first time that the Journal has addressed accreditation in a negative fashion and similar criticisms have been voiced at recent Senate hearings and in meetings of the National Advisory Council on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).

Where to begin with the lead editorial in the October 5, 2015 Wall Street Journal (“Trust Busting in Higher Education”)?

First, about the “cartel.” One of the multiple dictionary entries for this term is “sharing a common cause.” Yes – accreditation does have a common cause: academic quality in higher education. Strangely, the editorial ignores academic quality when it comes to accreditation, even as it tangles a number of issues – stifling innovation, college costs, default rates, grade inflation, high tuition. We in accreditation are proud to share the common cause of academic quality.

“Busy bodies”? Even the Wall Street Journal will acknowledge the strength and value of U.S. higher education. Accreditation, for a century, has been part of building and sustaining one of the most accessible and high-quality higher education enterprises in the world. While the editorial rushes to condemn accreditation for the limitations of higher education on the grounds of less-than-desirable graduation rates and higher-than-desired tuition, it utterly fails to commend accreditation for its role in higher education strengths. And, please, what control does accreditation have over tuition-setting, student loans or default?

Accreditors themselves are asking the tough questions and taking on innovative challenges. They are engaged in expanding competency-based education, replacing or augmenting time on task with evidence of student skills. They are engaging partnerships between their accredited institutions and innovative providers such as MOOCs. They are exploring ways to better assist institutions where graduation rates need to improve and default rates need to diminish. Contrary to the editorial’s claim that “Nothing but the accreditor’s up or down verdict is available to the public…,” every accreditor provides information about the actions it takes, often accompanied by detailed action letters. Every accreditor requires institutions to provide evidence of student learning. And, I don’t know an accreditor left in the country that counts books in the library any more. If you want to bash accreditation, at least make sure there is an understanding of its current practices.

Has accreditation been perfect in its role? No. Can it do better? Yes. But the editorial’s defining all of accreditation based on two problematic examples that are raised by accreditation’s critics over and over - Southeastern University and Tiffin University – is a bit like my deciding Apple is a lousy company because the sensors on my iPhone touch screen went out for three hours yesterday – as against years of problem-free service. A handful of accrediting decisions do not define all of accreditation and its work.

Going to what triggered all of this, the Rubio-Bennet bill introduced last week, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), created to provide national coordination of accreditation that includes the regional groups discussed in the editorial, welcomes the call to innovation. CHEA, along with the bill, envisions an emerging new world of higher education, where degree-granting colleges and universities are joined by innovative providers of all kinds, enhancing access and affordability for students. The bill’s “innovation authorizers” is one way to broaden the array of providers of external quality assurance to address the new world of higher education.

CHEA has created its own version of an authorizer: a “Quality Platform” or new form of quality assurance for innovative providers such as coding academies, MOOCs, private company course-bundlers. The Quality Platform is available to current accreditors or others seeking to build a quality assurance capacity. CHEA has also long supported greater public accountability, urging greater transparency of accreditation and greater emphasis on student learning outcomes. We envision an emerging new world of quality assurance.

At the same time, we have some real concerns about the Rubio-Bennet bill. We don’t think that the federal government can or needs to define and stipulate student learning outcome measures for more than 7,000 institutions, innovative providers and 20 million students – as the bill does. This is the work of colleges, universities, providers and accreditors. The federal oversight process for the innovative providers called for in the bill will, paradoxically, stifle the innovation it seeks to encourage – through the excessive regulatory scheme that the bill includes. Much of the academic work laid out in the bill can and should be done by colleges, universities and providers, not government. Yes, once this work is done, we must all be held accountable in order to have access to federal student aid funds, but the academic work is best done by the higher education community.

Is experimentation and innovation in quality assurance a good idea? Yes. Do we need to bash traditional accreditation such as the regionals to get there? No. Isn’t it about time that we get beyond trashing current accreditation to get to innovation in accreditation? The saddest part of the editorial is that the “cartel,” and “trust busting” and “racket” parts of the dialogue are just not needed. Let’s go directly to innovation, competition and creativity – all of which can be further enhanced through expansion of our thinking about quality assurance and accreditation. Let’s stop wasting time on name-calling and criticism based on outdated and inaccurate understanding of what accreditation is and does.