CHEA Recognition of Accrediting Organizations and Why It Matters

April 25, 2011

Judith S. Eaton

On August 4, 2010 Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, convened a hearing focused on for-profit higher education that included, a good deal of the time, attention to accreditation. It was, to say the least, not good for our enterprise. The emerging risk was clear, with committee members apparently expecting that accreditation should primarily be a form of compliance review that government directs rather than a collegial process to assure and improve quality in higher education, as perceived and practiced by the academic community for decades.

On March 10, 2011, the Senator held another hearing on a single for-profit higher education provider, Bridgepoint Education. A representative from Bridgepoint was not present and the hearing focused primarily on its accreditation. The Senator and other committee members challenged accreditation to provide more oversight of federal dollars, asking why accreditation did not more forcefully address questionable recruitment practices, executive compensation, job placement services, rapid enrollment growth in distance learning and acquisition of nonprofit institutions by for-profit corporations.

As the hearing drew to a close, Senator Harkin expressed skepticism about whether accreditation was doing an effective job with academic quality. He wondered out loud about how accrediting organizations are able to rigorously judge their institutions and programs when these operations also provide the funding for accreditors. Another hearing was not good for accreditation.

Higher education cannot afford to leave the judgment about the worth of accreditation solely to government. We have a responsibility as well.

A strong system of peer/professional review of institutions and programs calls for comprehensive and credible accrediting organizations. This, in turn, requires strong and effective peer-based external review of the effectiveness of these bodies. If the academy is to maintain the responsible independence and self-determination that has characterized colleges and universities for many years, investment in continued external quality review is essential for not only institutions and programs but accrediting organizations as well.

How Do We Know Accreditation is Doing a Good Job?

What do we say to Mr. Harkin? How do we know when accrediting organizations are doing a good job? Who decides? Does “doing a good job” mean that accreditation will become a government-directed compliance activity and not continue as a peer-based effort that not only assures but also improves quality? How will accreditation evolve?

At present, there are three answers to “who decides” whether accreditors are doing a good job.

First, accrediting organizations judge the job they are doing through their own ongoing self-review and commitment to improvement. Second, the federal government, through the Higher Education Act, provides oversight and makes judgments (“recognition”) about how well accrediting bodies operate as a condition of these organizations serving as gatekeepers for providing eligibility for federal funds to colleges and universities. Third, colleges and universities, through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), provide private sector oversight or judgment (“recognition”) of accrediting organizations, reviewing their quality and effectiveness based on standards that have been developed in consultation with the academic and accreditation communities.

The first means of judgment – self-evaluation – is effective but, in the current climate, it is increasingly difficult to say that this is enough. To assert the effectiveness of any enterprise (corporations, financial services) based solely on self-regulation these days is to be met with considerable skepticism.

The second means – federal oversight of accreditation – has been steadily expanding as a means of judgment, but in a direction that is causing considerable concern for some. If government is the sole or even primary decider, many in the academic and accrediting communities are worried that the traditionally academic enterprise of quality assurance will be converted to a government-driven activity primarily focused on – and judged by - assuring compliance with federal law and regulation. If this occurred, it would likely mean that the value and effectiveness of quality improvement would be diminished, not only for institutions but also for accrediting organizations themselves.

This leaves the third means of determining whether accreditation is doing a good job – private recognition through CHEA. Does CHEA recognition matter? If so, how?

CHEA Recognition

Private recognition of accrediting organizations by the academic community has been in place for decades, whether administered through the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation, the Commission for the Recognition of Postsecondary Accreditation, the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commissions of Higher Education or, most recently, CHEA. Recognition was developed by the academic community as a means of confirming that accrediting organizations are operating in a manner that meets the needs of institutions, programs, students and the public.

Recognition, as with accreditation, is a peer-based undertaking of professionals judging professionals, in this case to improve and enhance the quality and effectiveness of the accreditation process. CHEA recognition functions with standards for quality developed by the community. It is an evidence-based system that establishes aspirational goals for accreditors. Contrast this with federal recognition that is increasingly focused on accreditation’s worth defined in terms of how well it assures compliance with law and regulation, for example, requiring that all institutions and programs eligible for federal funds use, at a minimum, the same definition of “credit hour” when developing courses.

Private recognition has, over the years, become the academy’s mark of acceptance of an accreditor. Especially important, it is the only external review of accrediting bodies that places primary emphasis on the improvement and strengthening of accreditation. Private recognition is also an affirmation of shared academic values such as institutional autonomy, a mission-driven higher education enterprise, peer/professional review and academic freedom.

Because CHEA recognition brings together accreditors and academics, it reinforces the value and importance of the longstanding partnership that must continue to exist among institutions, programs and accreditors in order for accreditation to have the greatest constructive impact.

The some 60 accrediting organizations that are recognized by CHEA have been scrutinized using standards established by the academic community. These standards call for probing review of colleges, universities or programs without unwarranted intrusiveness or burden. These standards are periodically revised to reflect the needs of students and society, with the most recent changes emphasizing accreditation’s obligation to serve the public interest, whether through heightened transparency or meeting expectations of quality driven by a greater focus on what happens to students.

Not all accreditors are eligible for CHEA recognition and not all accreditors who apply achieve CHEA recognition. Some eligible accreditors are candid in stating that they will not pursue CHEA recognition because they either cannot or prefer not to meet the recognition standards, particularly CHEA’s calls for greater transparency, additional attention to student achievement and emphasis on serving the public interest.

CHEA recognition is acknowledged nationally and internationally such that the absence of this recognition is cause for questioning the quality and effectiveness of an eligible accreditor.

Absent CHEA recognition, there is no other external process available in the private sector that is dedicated to assuring and improving the quality of accrediting organizations. This quality improvement function has never been more important than now, when accrediting organizations are increasingly challenged by expanding government control that can weaken, not strengthen, accreditation’s commitment to quality improvement not only in institutions and programs but also within the organizations themselves.

In sum, CHEA recognition adds value by

  1. Enhancing the credibility of self-regulation and peer/professional review:
    • Accreditors are willing to undergo a thorough and challenging review by professional colleagues.
    • Accreditors who hold institutions and programs accountable for quality are, in turn, held accountable by the academic community for the quality and effectiveness of their own operations and judgments.
    • Government, the public and students react favorably to higher education taking responsibility for scrutinizing accreditation, viewing this an important commitment to public accountability.
  2. Strengthening academic quality:
    • CHEA recognition has improved the operation of accrediting organizations, especially as this relates to how accreditors work with institutions and programs to focus on quality improvement, transparency and student achievement.
    • CHEA recognition is built on the core values of institutional autonomy and leadership in academic matters, reinforcing the importance of these values in the review of educational institutions and programs.
  3. Contributing to the independence of higher education and accreditation:
    • Maintaining the independence of higher education and accreditation rests on the public’s confidence that institutions and accrediting bodies are held to high standards and ongoing external scrutiny through processes such as CHEA recognition.
    • Independence is essential to maintaining the vibrant academic leadership and creativity of colleges and universities.

Who Decides?

CHEA recognition matters. The answer to “who decides” with regard to the value and worth of accreditation is crucial to the future of quality improvement and self-determination in higher education and accreditation. All of the three deciders discussed above – accreditors themselves, government or the academic community through CHEA – have a role. Given the current emphasis on compliance that is dominating government expectations of accreditation, the role of private sector recognition is vitally important at this time, especially as this relates to assisting accrediting organizations as they seek to improve as well as safeguard the critical academic leadership role of colleges and universities in serving students and society.