Taking a Look at Ourselves, Accreditation

August 30, 2001

Remarks Presented to the Council For Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA)
Enhancing Usefulness Conference • Chicago, Illinois • June 28 and 29, 2001

Judith S. Eaton, President


Good morning and welcome to the fifth Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) Enhancing Usefulness Conference.

There are 49 accrediting organizations represented here and 40 colleges and universities. We are also joined by colleagues from state and federal government and various higher education associations. And, we are fortunate to have international colleagues from Namibia, the UK, Canada, United Arab Emirates and Finland with us as well.

Let’s take advantage of this impressive gathering of quality assurance leaders and invest some time this morning in a very important effort—"taking a look at ourselves, accreditation."

Let’s look at:

    • What we are;
    • What we face;
    • What we might do in the future.

Taking A Look: What We Are

1. United States Accreditation Is a Robust Industry

Our organizations:

    • Have been operating for more than 100 years;
    • Are active in all 50 states and at least 65 countries;
    • Accredit more than 6,400 institutions;
    • Accredit more than 23,000 programs.

State and federal government rely heavily on us:

    • Decisions to spend as much as $60 billion in student aid and other federal funds as well as billions of dollars in state funds are dependent on accredited status. This money goes to accredited institutions and their students annually, not to unaccredited institutions.

Other countries rely on us for verification of quality of institutions and degrees.

We are fundamental to the professions, with state certification of professionals heavily dependent on whether or not students have completed accredited programs.

We are fundamental to public decisions about the worth of higher education institutions: decisions by students about where to attend college and determinations by the public about whether an institution is considered "quality."

And, very significantly, accreditation is:

    • A major force in the U.S. to protect core academic values—some of the fundamental academic features of American higher education: general education, collegial governance, academic freedom, institutional autonomy.
    • Regional, specialized and national accreditors alike are influenced by this dominant model of core academic values—although this does creates tension and strain among them from time to time—with some accreditors more influenced by these values than others.

Accreditation is an essential part of American higher education and education policy. We have a great deal of which to be proud.

2. United States Accreditation Is a Complex And Unwieldy Enterprise

Accreditation is a decentralized enterprise—some would even say a duplicative enterprise:

    • There are approximately 75 currently active CHEA- or United States Department of Education (USDE)-recognized accreditors;
    • Some professions have more than one accreditor, e.g., business, teacher education, nursing;
    • There are multiple accreditors in the same general field (e.g., health professions) to review a range of specialties;
    • We have two recognition processes—one government (USDE) and one private (CHEA);
    • We have two types of institutional accreditors: regional and national;
    • Some ask why we continue to invest in a regional approach to accreditation in a world in which more and more higher education is offered nationally and internationally.

3. United States Accreditation Is a Sometimes Controversial Enterprise

At its worst, accreditation is perceived as:

    • Intrusive;
    • Too prescriptive;
    • Interfering with the very institutional autonomy and academic freedom that we claim to support.

Few people suggest that we do away with U.S. accreditation. But—there are frequently offered suggestions about changing it. Two favorites are:

    • Eliminate regional accreditation—make all institutional accreditation nationwide in scope;
    • Reduce the number of specialized accreditors.

Needless to say, these are not positions that CHEA supports.

U.S. accreditation, then, is a robust, complex and unwieldy and sometimes controversial enterprise. These are the first things that we see when we "take a look at ourselves, accreditation..."

Taking a Look: What We Face

We don’t have to "take a very hard look..." to see that we face large changes in the world of higher education. I will concentrate on three:

    • Universalization of higher education
    • "New commercialization" of higher education
    • Internationalization of higher education

1. Universalization of higher education—the first large change

    • "Universalization" of higher education is the expectation that, as a matter of course, everyone will go on to some form of postsecondary education. It is higher education become a necessity—just as we have taken K–12 education to be a necessity.
    • It is characterized by strong emphasis on training, part-time attendance, nonresidential attendance and limited interest in degree acquisition.
    • It is nurtured by electronic delivery.

Universalization—the way we are doing it—is a transition from higher education as deliberative intellectual development over a fairly extended period of time to higher education as more immediate acquisition of skills. It is more often about information transfer than cognitive development.

    • How are we moving toward universalization?
      • Through more and more open access higher education providers – anyone can go to college;
      • By the workplace demands for more training – especially coursework and certification of coursework;
      • By expanding demand for lifelong learning, especially for those with no prior college experience.
    • The impact of moving toward universalization is profound and raises many questions that should give us pause:
      • What is "higher education"—anyhow—in a universal access environment?
      • Does our concept of academic quality change? In what ways?
      • With so many more "users" of higher education: How do we respond to the growing demands for more immediate—and simple—responses to questions like "Is this quality? Yes or no?" How do we go about identifying quality and protecting students—as the types of higher education providers and numbers of students continue to grow?

At its core, universalization challenges accreditation to take a quality review system designed for higher education that is a site-based, residential, degree-granting, mostly full-time experience for a limited number of people and apply it to an expansive higher education system—one open to all, with or without site, with or without degrees and with or without residence.

It’s not just universalization, but how we are universalizing as well.

2. "New commercialization" of higher education—the second large change

    • "New commercialization" refers to the most recent impact of three key features of the corporate sector on higher education:
      • Concern for profit;
      • At least a rhetorical commitment to greater efficiency; and
      • The centrality of market responsiveness.
      • With the new commercialization:
        • Increased interest in profit is supposed to co-exist with serving the public interest;
        • Efficiency is supposed to co-exist with a commitment to academic values that is, ideally, unfettered by economic pressures;
        • A growing tendency to define "quality" as market responsiveness is supposed to co-exist with traditional academic notions of quality and serving the public good.
    • We have had business-based, for-profit institutions with us for many years. This is not new.
    • What is new:
      • Large-scale corporate interest in higher education;
      • Harnessing the power of electronic delivery to this interest;
      • Both the interest and the harnessing taking place in the context of universalizing higher education (discussed above).
    • What is also new are changing higher education structures:
      • Mergers of for-profit and nonprofit operations;
      • For-profit subsidiaries of nonprofit operations;
      • Multiple "ownership" of institutions and providers.

At its core, "new commercialization" challenges accreditation to consider whether these new commercial cultures can produce quality and under what conditions.

3. Internationalization of higher education—the third large change

    • "Internationalization" refers to expanding boundaries for institutions, courses, programs—higher education operation not limited by geography, culture or even law.
    • Some of its features are:
      • Increased mobility: institutions and programs from one country operating in several countries;
      • Increased mobility: students pursuing higher education in more than one country;
      • Creation of virtual institutions that exist mainly for international purposes;
      • Government interest in further controlling higher education as an item of trade and commerce—the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
    • We are visiting the strengths—and weaknesses—of one country’s higher education on another.
    • We are increasing the urgency of the question: Should U.S. accreditation expand internationally. How much and how?

At its core, internationalization challenges U.S. accreditation (and quality assurance leaders around the world) to examine what it means to take institutions, programs and quality review systems designed for domestic consumption into an international arena.

So—"taking a look at ourselves, accreditation"—what we face—means attention to:

  • Universalization: assuring quality during an expansion of higher education that carries the potential of significant modification of some fundamental academic characteristics of higher education;
  • "New commercialization": assuring quality in an environment of new and expanded corporate presence within an enterprise heretofore heavily influenced by nonprofit and public good considerations;
  • Internationalization: assuring quality in the face of the promises and perils of the growing export of institutions, programs and quality assurance – all initially created for domestic consumption.

Taking a Look: What We Might Do In the Future

Well, "...so what?" You might be asking.

Accreditation is a robust enterprise. Accreditation will respond to these changes—as we have responded in the past (e.g., with the expansion of higher education with the GI bill, with community colleges; with the emergence of the part-time, older student).

We have a good track record.

But —this time around—I am concerned that the changes with which we are confronted are indeed so large and profound. This makes me wonder whether our responses may result in changes to accreditation itself that are more fundamental than superficial.

We may be facing a period where accommodating change is really transforming our enterprise.

In my view, we are being asked—implicitly or explicitly—to at least consider six significant alterations to the accreditation model we currently use. And, I am not sure that very many of these changes would be palatable to very many of us. Nonetheless, let me offer them up for consideration.

1. First alteration—expand the scope and type of work of accreditation

    • Diversify what current accreditors review:
      • Go beyond review of institutions and programs and expand capacity to review the nondegree experience, especially courses and online credentials (e.g., certification);
      • Consider using third-party evaluators for course and certification review as part of accreditation.
    • Alternatively, create new accrediting organizations to deal with courses and course-based certification.

Why expand our scope of work? Universalization and new commercialization are making coursework and certification more important than ever before. We need quality assurance for these offerings.

2. Second alteration—make the accreditation process less time- consuming

    • Less time to become initially accredited;
    • Less time between reviews;
    • Less time to lose accreditation.

Why take less time? Universalization and new commercialization encourage proliferation of new providers. This is fueled by electronic capacity. Anybody can be a higher education provider today—and some are. We need quality review that keeps pace with the pace of emerging providers. We need to make it difficult for operations of dubious quality to reach students.

3. Third alteration—develop additional capacity for quality judgments based on student learning outcomes

    • Develop standards that are outcomes-based to make quality determinations;
    • Use outcomes that provide a basis for comparison among institutions and programs.

Why more attention to outcomes? In this environment of universalization and new commercialization, quality judgments based on outcomes appear to engender greater confidence than quality judgments based on "the process is ok." We need to help the public make good judgments in this diversifying environment. At least for some, this is more reliably done with outcomes. CHEA hears this routinely from government, from employers and from policymakers.

4. Fourth alteration—expand national capacity of regional accreditation

    • Regional accreditors have already developed a cross-regional framework for multiregional site-based education and a statement of commitment and good practices for electronic delivery of higher education across regions;
    • This may not be enough.

Why expand national capacity? New commercialization favors providers without geographic boundaries. This doesn’t fit with regionalism. Increasingly, "regional" accreditation serves a national market.

5. Fifth alteration—expand international capacity of all U.S. accreditation

    • Develop reciprocity agreements;
    • Use the proposed CHEA international principles—or something similar—to organize and rationalize our working relationships with international colleagues.

Why expand international capacity? International colleagues want U.S. accreditation; U.S. accreditors want to operate internationally.

6. Sixth alteration—expand and simplify the information we provide—be clearer and more open about the quality decisions we make:

    • Current accreditation decisions are more diagnostic than definitive.
    • "Accredited status" covers a wide range of strengths—and weaknesses—what is the public to understand?
    • In the current environment, our typically formative (vs. summative) accreditation judgments about quality may no longer be adequate.
    • Because of the demand for more and clearer information about quality, other actors are entering the arena of quality judgments—e.g., commercially prepared ranking services.

Why expansion and simplification? New commercialization and internationalization mean multiple models of higher education and multiple notions of academic quality. This means more students who need more information to make good judgments about quality.

Perhaps we need:

  • An "accreditation consumers report" for accredited higher education institutions, programs and courses.
  • A change in the minimum conditions for initial and continuing accreditation—creating additional and even higher expectations to become and remain accredited.
  • To improve our language about what is quality—remembering, always, that the public is our ultimate constituent.


We are challenged by the large changes of universalization, new commercialization and internationalization to shift fromaccreditation:

    • Dominated by commitment to the public good/core academic values/nonprofit higher education models and
    • Primarily serving colleges and universities through formative judgments and diagnoses for improvement.

To accreditation that does more to:

  • Serve an expanded higher education universe that is influenced by new commercialization, its interest in profit, its corporate-based providers and electronically based delivery, and
  • Directly serve students, the public and government by offering definitive quality judgments immediately useful to these constituents.

This shift might be achieved through some of the six alterations outlined above:

    • Diversifying what we review;
    • Reducing time of review;
    • Using outcomes as the primary basis for quality judgments;
    • Expanding the national capacity of regional accreditation;
    • Expanding the international capacity of all U.S. accreditors; and
    • Routinely providing more definitive information about quality judgments.

The real question is: do we want to go there?

If we do go there—adopt alterations in light of the large changes—we may risk much that we highly value: as with higher education itself, we may be pushed to diminish core academic values; to modify well-established and reliable features of higher education such as the longstanding role of faculty and collegial governance; perhaps even to erode our service to the public good.

If we don’t go there—move toward some alteration—there is, I submit, a risk as well. If we ignore universalization, new commercialization and internationalization, we are in danger of being ignored ourselves.

Here are just two examples:

  • The National Governors Association (NGA) recently released two reports on e-learning. These June 2001 documents barely mention accreditation while at the same time urging readers that quality is the paramount issue in e-learning.
  • House Bill 1992 (The Internet Equity and Education Act of 2001) is currently under consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness. This bill addresses distance learning and federal student aid eligibility. This eligibility rests on accredited status, yet accreditation is not a focus of the bill or the discussion in the subcommittee. To the contrary, accreditation is hardly mentioned here as well.

Perhaps state and federal officials are issuing a warning: In this new environment, don’t assume that accreditation will be the presumptive deliverer of quality review!

These are the risks—whatever we decide.

We have a lot to consider—what we are; what we face; what future we want to create. The question is no less than: What must accreditation do to remain the robust enterprise that it is today—a powerful influence on quality in higher education? I doubt that we will respond to this pressure by immediately leaving this meeting and radically altering what we do. I also doubt, however, that we can keep on doing exactly what we have done in the past and remain robust and significant. We will likely navigate the difficult waters of protecting our traditions and some of the past—and—responding to the large changes we face. I hope that some of what I have said this morning helps with this demanding task. And, most of all—I urge that we keep on "taking a look at ourselves, accreditation."

Thank you.

Judith S. Eaton
Council for Higher Education Accreditation