There's A Lot That's Right About Regional Accreditation
Judith S. Eaton
Several months ago, Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), spoke at the annual meeting of the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET), a federally recognized accrediting organization ("The Future of Accreditation"). Although Ms. Neal addressed the general role of accreditation, her primary focus was the regional organizations. And, consistent with the position that she and ACTA have taken for the past several years (see "Why Accreditation Doesn't Work and What Policymakers Can Do About It" and "Can College Accreditation Live Up to Its Promise?"), she once again found much to criticize.
The Role, Presence and Value of Regional Accreditation
Before examining these criticisms, it is worth reminding ourselves of the extent and nature of regional accreditation. The eight regional accrediting commissions accredit almost all public and private nonprofit higher education institutions in the country, including all major research universities, highly selective liberal arts colleges, comprehensive community colleges and state college and universities. These more than 3,000 institutions constitute the largest single block of degree-granting colleges and universities accredited by a single type of institutional accreditor, educating some 18.5 million students during the 2006-07 academic year. They include all universities in the United States that are considered "world class" and the institutions that attract virtually all of the more than 600,000 international students in the country.
Regional accreditation, for decades, has been formally or legally acknowledged as a reliable authority on academic quality by the federal government, all states, foundations that support higher education and corporations that support the education of employees. It plays a vital role as the gatekeeper of access to federal funds for its accredited institutions, as well as state and private sector funds. In any international discussion of U.S. accreditation, regional organizations are instantly recognized and engender immediate respect.
Perhaps most important, regional accreditation is a successful model of a powerful professional peer review process by which academic quality can be judged. Peer review is acknowledged throughout the world as the most appropriate and desirable approach to the evaluation of such a complex area as higher education. Peer review serves as a rich and diverse resource for quality improvement for a college or university. It is a vital asset to institutional leaders as they carry out their responsibility for academic quality, continuing the longstanding tradition of institutional leadership as central to the success of higher education. A peer review model is frequently at odds with government-directed evaluation schemes that often rely on standardization of expectations and quantitative analyses that cannot capture the nuances of such complex phenomena as student achievement.
This said, what are the criticisms of regional accreditation in the speech? The claim is that regional accreditation is failing on a number of fronts, with little connection between regional standards and academic quality. Regional accreditation is presented as (1) not providing accountability to the public, (2) using its power to apply intrusive prescriptive standards, (3) enforcing ideological tests, (4) undermining the authority of governing boards and (5) serving as a barrier to new institutions entering the higher education market and generally misleading the public by pretending that the process implies quality when it does not. Regional accreditors are described as abusing their federal gatekeeping role. The vital quality improvement role of regional accreditation is dismissed as meeting the needs of institutions ("internal reviews") but not the public, as if these needs are mutually exclusive.
Suggestions for changes to regional accreditation structure and function include: (1) providing data on program completion and job placement, (2) broadening their scope of operation such that institutions in a given geographic area have a choice of regional accreditors and are not confined to a single organization, ending "geographical monopolies," (3) establishing gradations or levels of accredited status, (4) increasing transparency by providing information about institutional performance to the public and (5) taking steps to assure transfer of credit works routinely and smoothly.
Critiquing the Critique
There are two major problems with a broad-based attack on regional accreditation. First, it flies in the face of the extraordinary investment that government and the public have made in this type of accreditation over many decades. Both government and the public accept this form of peer review as reliable evidence of quality, as described above. If regional accreditation were as weak and self-serving as some suggest, one would expect that the market would have spoken and institutions would have gravitated to one of the 11 other federally recognized institutional accreditors or found a means to obtain federal funds apart from being regionally accredited or created new institutional accrediting bodies that meet their needs. To date, none of this has happened.
Second, many suggested "remedies" rely on a significant imposition of additional government control of higher education – at the price of the powerful peer review model. This is throwing out the baby with the bath water. The federal government would be a key player in forcing changes on accreditation and their institutions, with the Secretary of Education charged to alter the structure of regional accreditation (an authority that the Secretary does not have). It would appear that government intervention is also needed to impose reporting obligations on institutions in such areas as program completion, job placement and a transfer of credit regimen.
But... Let's Pay Attention
For all that there are concerns with a number of these criticisms, some of the changes that are suggested are timely. For example, CHEA has been urging for a number of years that all accreditation would benefit from providing more readily accessible and easily understandable information to the public. As long as the basis for judging the success of student achievement continues to rest with individual institutions, additional information about student learning outcomes – e.g., program completion – would be helpful. The call for gradations of accredited status also has been heard, from time to time, within the community of regionally accredited institutions.
With regard to ending the regional structure, this issue also has some traction among regionally accredited institutions of late. The regional accreditors themselves have focused on mobility across regions, with some developing "transfer of accreditation" practices and looking for additional means to streamline their work with the growing number of institutions operating multi-regionally.
Some of these issues are also being raised through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's CHEA Initiative, a framework for discussion of the future of accreditation launched by CHEA in Fall 2008. The Initiative is a vehicle for a multi-year conversation focused on strengthening public confidence in accreditation and rethinking the accreditation-federal government relationship.
Through the CHEA Initiative and the continuing discussion of accreditation, the higher education community has an ideal opportunity to address new and innovative ways to strengthen the accreditation process. However, addressing a number of the recommendations offered by Ms. Neal and others need not take place at the price of jettisoning the many valuable attributes of regional and other types of accreditation, especially the practice of professional peer review and the centrality of institutional leadership that is essential to sustaining and enhancing academic quality.