How disruption can contribute to the future success of accreditation

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 Act reauthorization bill introduced in December by Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) and Brett Guthrie (R-Kentucky).

Editor’s note: This excerpt comes from Inside Accreditation, a publication of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

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?

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About the Author

Judith S. Eaton
is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
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