University chiefs share 3 takeaways on evolving role of accreditation [CHEA 2016]

Leaders from Heritage U, UC-Merced offer thoughts on agencies' roles and non-traditional providers

Among the many diverse and complex challenges faced by those in what is essentially a college or university's chief executive officer position is accreditation. A school's credentials are given weight by the seal of approval from institutional accreditors — and, for many individual programs, professional accreditors. Without it, the future of an institution is very likely in jeopardy.

But with higher ed facing change on a number of fronts, perhaps most notable of which is the potential accreditation of non-institutional credential providers like coding bootcamps or MOOCs, what do college and university leaders see as most important? What do they ultimately want from their accreditors and how do they think it should change — if at all?

These were among the questions presented to Heritage University President John Bassett and University of California-Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland during a luncheon session at last week's annual Council for Higher Education Accreditation conference. Education Dive was on hand, and we left with these takeaways.

What role should an accreditor play?

It's worth noting, as moderator and CHEA President Judith Eaton did, that both Bassett and Leland have served on CHEA's Board of Directors, so neither is a stranger to the intricacies of accreditation. Naturally, the first question posed was what role they believe accreditors should play.

"I think the question is about whether or not accreditation should be involved in both (quality assurance and consumer protection), or just one of them," Leland said. "I don't really like the term 'quality assurance.' I wanna go back to quality improvement. Initially, that's what accreditation was all about."

Leland added that there is "tremendous value" in that quality improvement role, noting that institutions initially signed on to it as a means of peer review that helped them improve in key areas — particularly student learning. That sort of review, she said, helps a college or university pull together on stalled and important tasks that might otherwise not see completion. While Leland noted that consumer protection is also very important, it's not what she feels accreditation should be concerned with given that there are various regulations aimed at the use of federal funds and protecting students from harmful activities.

Bassett, meanwhile, suggested that as much as 99% of the conversation and disagreement on accreditation is focused on institutional accreditors, adding that professional accreditors that oversee individual programs in nursing, business, and beyond often get overlooked. "I think we have a system that's working there in terms of protecting the quality of education in our professions around the country," he said. 

"It shouldn't be surprising that this is very complicated," he added, noting that you're really asking for the same credential to go to Stanford and Heritage, and that once you put money into it and follow that money, it gets even more complicated. That's only compounded more-so with federal money involved, and even more once you're playing gatekeeper.

How much are institutional leaders personally involved in accreditation?

"If I'm a president or a CEO of a university, my involvement in accreditation is going to vary based on a couple of things," Bassett said.

First, he noted that institutional accreditation may only be a smaller part of the overall picture for a large public or private institution, noting that such schools could have as many as 30 or so other professional accreditations going on around the university. A small liberal arts college, on the other hand, might only have institutional accreditation and one or two others to worry about. 

"There's a very different scale there for what accreditation means to my budget," Bassett said.

In the second half of his response, he noted that the president of a large university with highly-regarded programs probably has staff in place to take care of accreditation. They probably have to go to some meetings and dinners, but their minds probably aren't on accreditation 40 hours a week "unless they're part of CHEA, unless they serve on a commission."

But most importantly, he noted that most higher ed leaders don't want it to go away because it validates their profession. Leland agreed, adding that despite some presidents and chancellors griping about the time consumed, there have been cases in which it's not so much the accrediting bodies but the local committees that had the "wrong mix of characters" nitpicking in ways that weren't helpful to institutions. Ultimately, though, external review is part of higher ed's culture and contributes insights and suggestions for helping institutions improve in struggling areas.

Should non-institutional providers fall under regional accreditors' oversight?

With the rise of non-institutional providers has come a call in some circles for new accrediting bodies — particularly as the U.S. Department of Education experiments with the idea of providing financial aid. Bassett expounded upon an earlier remark that he wished regional accreditors would pick up the task of oversight for such course providers, stating that he wished the push for new accrediting bodies had taken root at CHEA and that higher ed as an industry and community had taken charge in that process.

"I have nothing against the Department of Ed — many of my best friends have worked in the Department of Ed," Bassett joked before expressing concern over government compliance issues taking precedence over quality assurance. "Why aren't we, higher education as an industry, as a community, taking charge of this process?"

Leland added that she doesn't know what the proliferation of accrediting agencies for such programs will do except cost taxpayers more money. She took particular issue with a notion from an earlier session that new accrediting entities were necessary to guarantee an independent review, based on the notion that regional accrediting bodies might not do so in an unbiased manner because the non-institutional course providers are their competitors.

"They don't think higher education institutions compete against each other, and that we still can't manage fair and unbiased peer reviews of institutions that may be down the street trying to get my students?" she asked. "We do it all the time."

Higher ed must, she said, understand that these nontraditional providers will only become more important and continue growing rapidly, so college and university leaders should be interested in knowing beyond a case-by-case basis what to do with credits students bring from those programs.

"Without some kind of quality assurance stamp, it means we have to waste our time every single time doing an individual analysis of those credits to decide whether or not we can accept them into our institutions," she said. "We could be expending our time in better ways."

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: CHEA