Consequences of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education: Where Do We Stand?
At a recent gathering of a national organization in Washington DC, I served on a panel that addressed the question, “Did the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education accomplish anything?” I focused my response on the commission’s efforts with regard to accreditation.
As I said on the panel, the commission could indeed point to a number of both political and substantive consequences of its work, although only six months have passed since the report became public. The consequences of the commission’s actions are related to dialogue, challenge, criticism, the role of government and apprehension.
With regard to the first consequence, dialogue, I pointed out (as have many others) that the commission had indeed initiated an important national discussion on accreditation in higher education. More important, the commission has also managed to sustain this dialogue. We are experiencing the most significant federal attention paid to accreditation in the 15 years since the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
This dialogue has been punctuated by a series of events orchestrated by the United States Department of Education (USDE). The department has held regional hearings across the country (September – November 2006); gathered a number of educators, business leaders and college and university officials for an Accreditation Forum (November 2006); established an Accreditation Committee as part of the current Negotiated Rulemaking (February – April 2007); hosted a Higher Education Summit that included accreditation (March 2007) and is planning mini-summits around the country (tentatively set for June 2007). In addition, I cannot name a single higher education conference – within or outside the United States – that I have attended since the commission began its work that has not devoted at least one session to the Futures Commission.
As this dialogue relates to accreditation, it is all about accountability. The commission report was quite critical of accreditation for not doing more in this area and a number of commission papers reflected significant dissatisfaction with how accreditation has approached – or failed to approach - accountability over the years.
More specifically, the commission was concerned about accreditation’s role in providing evidence of student learning and institutional performance. It raised questions about how transparent accreditation itself is – whether it provides easily accessible and reliable information about the bases for its judgments about quality to the public. And, over and over, the commission asked: “What is accreditation doing to assist the public in making good decisions about attending a college or university?”
The second consequence I noted is about challenge and action. The commission challenged higher education and accreditation by publicly calling into question their effectiveness – in contrast to simply assuming this, as has often been the case in national dialogues. This challenge, in some cases, angered and enraged those within higher education and accreditation, resulting in criticisms of the commission report that were as plentiful as they were unrelenting. We in the higher education community are extraordinarily skilled at such criticism, a tool we have often used to block actions that we do not support – with great success.
At the same time, however, the commission challenges produced a number of actions on the part of higher education and accreditation. For example, the commission has:
- Been pivotal in the National Association of State and Land-Grant Colleges and Universities developing and making significant progress on its work to establish a voluntary data collection and benchmarking system of institutional performance indicators for public research universities;
- Brought greater attention to the important work of the Association of American Colleges and Universities related to liberal education outcomes that has been going on for a number of years;
- Encouraged efforts at collecting and analyzing aggregate data about student learning such as the Collegiate Learning Assessments and
- Prodded us at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to push harder on our accountability agenda for accreditation on which we have worked for a number of years, urging that accreditors make evidence of student learning and institutional performance central to judgments about academic quality and that accreditors become more transparent.
The third consequence is related to the critics of accreditation. The commission report has encouraged, if not sanctioned and emboldened, those who, over the years, have found accreditation lacking. Those who are discontent about accreditation are now in the forefront. The commission report has afforded a significant opportunity to air recent or longstanding grievances. Whatever their perspectives, the critics have in common a desire to diminish accreditation’s current role by, e.g.:
- Insisting that states control accreditation, not the private sector;
- Eliminating regional accreditation and replacing regional standards with a single set of national standards used by all accreditation or
- Ending the federal gatekeeping role that private sector accreditation has carried out for the past 50 years, with perhaps government taking on this responsibility.
The fourth consequence is about setting the stage to alter the role of government in relation to higher education and academic quality. The commission raised fundamental questions about whether the federal government can and should become more prescriptive and directive in this area. For example:
- The commission’s deliberations (not the final report) put on the table the concept of a national accreditation foundation – equivalent to a federal ministry for academic quality.
- USDE has reacted to the commission report by ratcheting up demands on accreditors around accountability, intensifying the department’s application of current law and regulation. This, in turn, has resulted in considerable additional pressure on accreditors with regard to, e.g., outcomes and transparency.
- Congress has reacted to the commission report by indicating that it, too, is likely prepared to expand its demands for accountability in accreditation in the current reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Members and staff are watching commission-related activities closely.
The commission report encourages a considerably stronger role for government with regard to how we judge quality and how private accreditation bodies carry out their work. Government would use accreditation to assert authority to nationalize and perhaps even federalize expectations of higher education quality. The professional judgment of academics that currently defines accreditation would yield to significantly expanded government regulation.
The commission’s fifth consequence is about apprehension. To the extent that its report focused on issues such as national standards for quality, national testing and mandated comparability in higher education, serious consternation has ensued among educators. Actions in these areas would effectively standardize expectations of higher education quality, ignoring a key structural element of the U.S. higher education enterprise: its decentralized and mission-based approach to access and quality.
This apprehension is well-grounded. Standardizing expectations of higher education quality has the powerful potential to undercut the fundamentals that have created the strength of the current higher education enterprise. Standardization could not help but diminish the diversity of higher education, weaken its innovative capacity and compromise its intellectual strength. Indeed, a fair amount of the opposition to the commission report in the higher education community is the result of apprehension that these issues – not performance and transparency – are the real agenda.
The Commission on the Future of Higher Education has established and sustained a national (and international) dialogue. It has issued important challenges to higher education, resulting in significant action from accreditation, colleges and universities. It has emboldened the critics of accreditation, put the prospect of additional governmental control on the table and engendered considerable apprehension at this relates to the standardization of higher education quality.
What has the Commission on the Future of Higher Education accomplished? Whether we like it or not, quite a bit in a short time.