How Disruption Can Contribute to the Future Success of Accreditation

February 26, 2018

Judith S. Eaton

Disruption: Disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity, or process. (

Conversation about disruption in accreditation, our primary means of assuring and improving quality in higher education, has mostly taken place among actors external to the enterprise. These include public officials who have recently overseen expansion of the role of the federal government in accreditation, policy leaders and researchers who, for multiple years, have been quite public in their criticism of accreditation and media that often reflect a declining public confidence in our work. The most recent discussion is taking place around the Higher Education Reauthorization Bill introduced in December 2017 by Representatives Foxx and Guthrie.

Maybe it is time for accreditation itself to further discuss and even become a more robust enabler of disruption. Maybe it is time to use disruption to focus our attention on the need for additional change in our vital important enterprise. Perhaps it is time to adapt some of suggestions for disruption out there to move accreditation forward on our own terms. Two areas of attention are particularly important in framing this discussion: (1) the mismatch between what the accrediting community values about what it does and what external actors value and (2) the increasing pressure on the accrediting community to further engage and provide leadership for innovation in their work and in higher education.

Listen in on about any conversation on the state of accreditation between a group of accreditors, on the one hand, and, e.g., public officials, policymakers or media, on the other hand. Accreditors appropriately point to the strengths of their work: peer review, the thoroughness of their review that embraces resources and processes as well at attention to outcomes, the commitment to innovation and how accreditation has played a key role in the enormous success of higher education.

Officials, policymakers or media are typically less than impressed. They may even acknowledge these strengths – yet go on to say “So what?” To these folks, accreditors are missing the point. Unless accreditation is first and foremost focused on accountability – student learning outcomes and student success, institutional performance and transparency – it is not, in the eyes of those outside the enterprise, adequately responsive to the needs of today’s students and society.

Such conversations display a mismatch. Accreditation’s behavior in judging quality and effectiveness is still driven by what has been most prized in the past: a review carried out primarily by academics who believe that enough in the way of talent and money as well as an appropriate organizational structure in a college or university is highly likely to yield institutional effectiveness and quality. However, those outside higher education – Congress, media, policymakers – judge effectiveness differently. Despite the demonstrated success of accreditation, those outside higher education now prize accountability for results above all else, less than impressed by preserving all the features of a review that may have worked out so well for accreditation in the past.

Then there is all the talk today about disruption in higher education itself – how colleges and universities need innovation: to be penetrated, jostled, disturbed or energized by ideas, practices, perspectives that are not typical of their work. Examples include the latest applications of technology to teaching and learning and the emerging use of virtual reality and artificial intelligence in classrooms. They include challenges to curricula in the form of current sharp rebukes to traditional higher education offerings and pressure on campus culture to rethink what is meant by free speech and academic freedom. Debates about the quality of online education and for-profit education continue and the emergence of non-institutional providers continue to make some academics uneasy. How are we in accreditation altering our practices to address the changing landscape?

And, to what extent are accreditors also paying attention to innovation, to the new types of quality review that have emerged or are emerging – rankings, international comparisons, government scorecards and dashboards? Congress talks about new types of quality review, whether “innovation authorizers” for short-term educational experiences or “quality assurance entities” alongside traditional accreditors or states as accreditors. Even if we protest that, e.g., rankings are not a form of quality review, are we adequately aware that traditional accreditation no longer has a monopoly on judging academic effectiveness? That, at least for right now, accreditors as dominant arbiters of academic quality do not command as much trust and public confidence we once did?

The changing expectations of accreditation and the changing landscape of higher education support a call for greater disruption in accreditation. What might this look like? How do we in accreditation lead this?

The four major pillars of accreditation area (1) its scope of activity – what it chooses to examine, (2) its expectations – as presented in standards and policies, (3) its processes – how it goes about its work and (4) its decision-making – its judgments about quality. Disruption in accreditation would ultimately mean a redesign of some and perhaps all of these pillars over time.

With regard to scope, how many accreditors are broadening their purview, routinely choosing to go beyond traditional institutions to, e.g., companies (non-institutional providers) that offer education, innovative ventures such as Purdue/Kaplan and the Minerva Schools with the emphasis on a global educational experience? A number of accreditors already look at partnerships between traditional institutions and non-institutional providers. What about the disruption of including stand-alone non-institutional providers and more new types of institutions in the scope of accreditors? This is a growing sector that cries out for reliable quality review to protect students and society.

With regard to accreditation expectations as conveyed through standards and policies, might these need to change, not so much in terms of their admirable aspirations, but in terms of their focus and evidence? Perhaps we need the disruption of fewer standards and the remaining standards to focus more on whether students succeed and less on how institutions are operating. We may not count books in the library anymore, but we still pay more attention than is needed to general campus operation. Yes, some attention is essential, but less than today’s standards and policies require. Instead, we need the disruption of standards and policies that are as focused on evidence that outcomes are achieved as we have been focused on affirming that an institution is operating in a particular way.

When it comes to accreditation processes, it is essential right now to take a hard look at both self-study and peer review that are at the heart of accreditation. Public – and, at times, academic – confidence in these tools to judge quality is a bit shaken. Unless both are augmented by disruptions such as reliable external verification of information and even stronger conflict of interest protections, this doubt will continue. And, to what extent have we taken advantage of the disruptive impact of data analytics to modify these processes, enabling accreditors to further streamline their work and make it more reliable?

Perhaps even more difficult, accreditation needs to take a good look at its decision-making, especially how judgments about accredited status and quality improvement are handled. The days in which an institution can be tolerated as well-intentioned but operating poorly and needing years to fix itself are gone. Students, the public and lawmakers are no longer accepting of substandard institutions that we say are “improving” and thus should continue to be accredited and to operate. One worthwhile disruption might be to establish levels of accredited status – in contrast to today’s binary system of either you are accredited or not. Another would be to establish explicit thresholds of performance beyond which an institution cannot obtain or remain accredited.

To the traditionalists among us, who value accreditation above all as part of preserving traditional higher education – those who still treasure the undergraduate experience, who make the case for education for intellectual development and civic engagement as well as education for work – disruption as described above might be viewed with dismay. However and perhaps paradoxically, we will not preserve the best of our traditions unless we also embrace the value of disturbance. We can use self-study and peer view to make judgments about accredited status, provided we acknowledge the value of external verification of information. We can continue to focus on quality improvement if we find ways to either assure a substandard institution improves expeditiously or we remove accredited status.

Among some accreditors, there will also be a cry that “…we are already doing these disruptive things….” Agreed. However, the pace is often slow and deliberate, not matching the intensity of pressure to change that higher education is experiencing. We can build on important successes to date such as the WASC Senior College and University Commission student achievement advances that make this information for every accredited institution readily available, what the Association of Specialized and Programmatic Accreditors tells us about the extensive use of student learning outcomes in programmatic accreditation and the work of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in competency-based education. We can benefit from the emphasis on accountability that characterizes the standards of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, demonstrating that longstanding accrediting organizations can indeed engage disruption.

So – leading disruption can aid in the future success of accreditation, guided by a commitment to resolve the mismatch described above and the need to further engage and lead innovation in higher education. It can be achieved through attention to four areas. First, accreditors need to broaden their scope of activity, allowing quality review to further expand to non-institutional or alternative providers of higher education. Second, they can rethink standards and policies to focus first and foremost on requiring evidence of student learning and high-quality institutional performance. Third, accreditors need to augment their processes, adding external verification of information to self-study and peer review. Fourth, accreditors need a revised model of decision-making that does not allow substandard institutions to operate for a significant period of time and is explicit with regard to levels of performance that are required for accredited status.