Higher education accreditation has a deep and rich history in the United States. According to Online MBA, the first regional accrediting agencies started in the 1880s with a focus on educational standards and admission procedures. The accreditation process quickly evolved and expanded to include national standards as well as program-specific accreditation. Fast-forward to 1966, when the U.S. Congress enacted the Higher Education Act to regulate accreditation in U.S. colleges and universities.
While the act continues in a revised form to this day, the current political climate and rapidly changing educational environment bring into question whether accreditation will exist to see the next decade. Is accreditation still relevant? Why should institutions continue to go through the accreditation process? And how can accreditation be brought into the 21st century?
Accreditation is designed to provide assurance that an institution has met minimal standards of quality so that students are assured that they are earning a meaningful degree. The United States has six regional accreditation organizations that review schools within a specific area of the country. Regional accreditation is granted to the institution of higher education as a whole, which allows it to award degrees and offer federal financial aid to students.
However, there are vast discrepancies in the requirements among the regions’ accrediting bodies. Inside Higher Ed reported in 2016 that the federal government created a scorecard for accreditors which enables stakeholders to look at the performance of regional accreditation agencies based on the performance of the institutions they accredit. This move suggests an increased use of a variety if metrics (student graduation levels and earnings, loan repayment, number of underrepresented populations) to evaluate these agencies’ performance.
Many institutions of higher education also have to deal with program-specific accreditations, which are required for many specialized areas such as medicine, nursing and engineering that result in a degree or license for key professionals. The intent of program-specific accreditation is to provide high standards of quality at a much more detailed level.
However, many of these requirements are redundant with regional level requirements and may hamper innovation. For instance, Inside Higher Ed reported that the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications voluntarily dropped its specialized accreditor, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. “As we near the 2020s, we expect far better than a 1990s-era accreditation organization that resists change — especially as education and careers in our field evolve rapidly,” said Medill Dean Brad Hamm in a message to alumni. “All fields benefit from a world-class review process, and unfortunately the gap between ACEJMC today and what it could, and should, be is huge.”
Medill’s decision follows in the wake of the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism’s move to drop the program-specific accreditor. While Medill will still be under the umbrella of Northwestern University’s accreditation, some of its students and faculty may be ineligible for outside activities, such as the Hearst Journalism Awards, open to participants from accredited schools.
Accreditation Moving Forward
The Medill decision brings up a good question — What is the future of accreditation? Not surprisingly, the Trump Administration recently signaled that they would like lawmakers to not reauthorize the Higher Education Act. ““Why wouldn’t we start afresh and talk about what we need in this century and beyond for educating and helping our young people learn?” said Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Heritage Foundation education policy analyst Mary Claire Reim concurred, suggesting that policymakers consider decoupling federal financing from accreditation. She believes that the federal system of accreditation has hampered innovation in the education system and suggests that states should be able to select their own accreditors, which can include members of the business community.
However, there are other ways of making accreditation a more meaningful – and useful — part of higher education’s governance:
Reduce the cumbersome nature of accreditation. While both levels of accreditation can offer a checks and balances system designed to offer protection for students, a regional review can take at least two years of preparation while a specialized program review could require up to five years of preparation, placing an especially hefty burden on institutions, especially smaller colleges and programs whose human and financial resources are stretched thin already.
Allow for individualization – Many accreditors have a “one-size fits all” approach, making it difficult for schools or programs to innovate while complying with outdated standards. Furthermore, expanding programs, creating new degrees and delivering instruction through new technologies require prior approval from accreditors, thus leading to additional paperwork and significant delays. Instead, accreditation agencies could give institutions the flexibility to provide evidence of how their unique strengths positively impact the student learning experience instead of following a prescribed formula from the accreditors.
Develop fewer and broader standards of quality. Currently, SACS requires institutions to respond to more than 90 standards in writing with extensive evidence of compliance. This type of reporting puts a significant burden on institutions and forces them to conform to the “one-size fits all” approach. Broadening compliance standards and making them less prescriptive would give schools flexibility in creating their responses and allow them to showcase their unique qualities.
Dropping contrived products. Some regional accreditors require an instruction-wide project that supposedly improves student learning. For instance, SACS requires the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), which entails selecting a topic, implementing it and advertising it across the entire institution. The result often is an artificial, contrived product that demands institutions to expend extensive resources and diverts them from focusing on true teaching time.
A common set of standards — Some disparity currently exists on the content and stringency of standards required by regional accreditors. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation could play a larger role by working with these regional bodies to create more consistency and to continually review standards to ensure they are in line with broad educational trends.
A bigger role for professional organizations. While this is happening on some levels, specialized accreditors should find ways to work more closely with professional organizations to ensure standards are up-to-date with what is happening in the industry. This close relationship also will help students be better prepared for successful careers
Institutions of higher education and their programs are and should be regularly required to examine their operations as a way of self-improvement. Therefore, it is completely reasonable to ask accreditors to do the same self-evaluation process that ensures their accreditation process is up-to-date with current and future education needs. Taking these steps can help accreditation remain relevant, instead of increasingly being viewed by both policymakers and educators as a “necessary evil.”