Accreditation during Covid

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Leaders of college accreditation organizations say the pandemic, potential federal higher education regulatory changes, and the drive for greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are recent trends affecting their accreditation and quality assurance review efforts.

Accreditors and the institutions they regulate are increasing their focus on DEI efforts, in part reflecting the Black Lives Matter racial reckoning and the #metoo and anti-gender discrimination and harassment social movements, they say.

Cynthia Jackson-Hammond

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which, along with the U.S. Education Department, recognizes higher education accreditation bodies, in 2020 posted a statement noting its expectations of its members concerning DEI, says Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, president of CHEA, which recognizes 64 accreditation organizations.

“We wanted to very clearly demonstrate, and write our commitment to, DEI,” she says. “We are also reviewing [CHEA’s DEI requirements in the context of reviewing] our CHEA standards, which will be out for public comment this summer. We have included DEI, and values and requirements for evidence from our accrediting organizations that would be represented as a standard, because DEI is so interwoven into academic quality.”

Studying the data

Some accreditation organization leaders are the embodiment of DEI progress. Belle Wheelan is the first woman of color president at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), which accredits 780 higher education institutions in 11 Southern states. She says her groundbreaking role has been a familiar theme in her career.

“I have been the first woman or first minority in many of the jobs that I’ve held,” Wheelan says. “I think it makes me, as it does any minority or any woman who’s in a position of leadership, sensitive to both the needs of the people who look like them, but also of the perceptions of people who don’t.”

With respect to DEI, Wheelan says that SACSCOC has a position statement urging member institutions to attend to DEI issues and holds its member institutions accountable by requiring disaggregation of student achievement data and examining student metrics.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, a division of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) that accredits in California, Hawaii and certain Pacific islands, already has DEI standards, notes Stephanie Droker, its president. She adds that many community colleges are quite advanced on DEI issues.

“We do have standards on equity, but given that we have different types of institutions — we have everything from private nonprofits to public, private, private, for-profit, including theological missions — our DEI evaluation is always based upon the context of the mission developed by the institution,” she says. “Community colleges, as open-access institutions, in particular have a long-standing history of focusing on equity, and the desire to close achievement gaps in subpopulations is not new.”

Sticking to the standards

A large change for many accreditation body members has been the shift to distance learning. While Covid has meant enormous changes for colleges to increase distance education capabilities, the accreditor leaders said the pandemic generally had not caused changes in their accreditation standards or quality assurance processes, save for deferring in-person quality assurance visits, or, as measured thus far, in the general ability of institutions to maintain quality. 

Covid has not reduced SACSCOC’s standards, Wheelan says.

Belle Wheelan

“No, we’re not that generous,” she says. “The same basic requirements applied during the pandemic. Just the way they carry them out might have been different. And so we’ll evaluate how they performed that.”

One large effect of Covid upon the accreditor’s community college members that was evident was a loss of enrollment, Wheelan says.

“So many of their students are adult students who may have suddenly had to stay home with their own children to help them or they were working from home because they lost their jobs,” Wheelan says. “And so that results in an enrollment dip that impacts our institutions’ budgets, and they will need to learn to explain and figure out how they’re going to rebound.”

Dealing with distance education

The pandemic has expanded acceptance of distance education, says Leah Matthews, executive director and CEO of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), which serves about 80 distance education institutions.

“Recently, I discussed potential membership in DEAC with leaders of an organization in a field that has been staunch in its resistance to distance learning ever being appropriate for what they teach,” she says. “And now they are realizing that all their professionals have been doing their work online since Covid-19 hit. An increasing number of programs in disciplines and professional areas that never considered distance education are now exploring their options.”

For distance education, the pandemic has resulted in a surge in enrollment.

“We have seen a major surge in applications for DEAC accreditation,” Matthews says. “Achieving accredited status requires a considerable commitment of resources and documentation; it is far more involved than just offering educational content online.”

She continues: “In addition to demonstrating a high-quality academic experience, newly forming institutions need to demonstrate that they can comply with state and federal requirements as well as accreditation standards. We are doing a lot of work to communicate clearly the rigors of the accreditation process and the evidence that a new institution has to provide to show it has what it takes to be accredited.”

Addressing ‘bright-line’ issues

A federal higher education policy that has waxed and waned through different federal administrations and Congresses is a push for imposing “bright-line” standards for educational attainment upon postsecondary institutions and to condition access to federal funds upon achieving them. Opposition to such potential federal standards, which have again gained some traction in federal education policy discussions in recent years, was a point of unanimity among all the accreditation executives interviewed.

Such bright-line standards, if implemented, are likely to fall particularly hard, and inequitably, upon community colleges, says Wheelan, who in 2019 testified before the U.S. Senate education committee to oppose them.

“It’s unfair to community colleges, because most of their students are part-timers,” Wheelan says. “And so, if you’ve got an entering class of, you know, 500 people, and only 100 of them are first-time, full-time, and you’re going to get a 25% completion rate or 20% completion rates. And it takes them longer to get out than just two years or three years. And so the Department of Education has subsequently included part-timers in their IPEDs data. So we were pleased that at least they moved that way.”

All four accreditation heads also oppose imposing bright-line standards as potentially interfering with the rights of colleges to determine their relevant metrics and how they measure themselves.

“We don’t think that should be set by the government; we think it should be set by the institution,” says Droker, noting that even among community colleges such standards would be inequitable among different members, disproportionately impacting negatively poorer, rural members that struggle with completion rates.

Jan Friis

Imposition of bright-line standards could affect access, says Jan Friis, CHEA senior vice president for governmental affairs.

“The question is, are you willing to take access away,” Friis asks. “Because if you make institutions accountable for bright lines, they will make sure that they are successful. And in doing that, they will limit access to sets of people.”

The accreditation leaders note their regulated institutions have taken steps to foster results and efficiencies in higher education independently of bright-line standards. Droker notes that accreditors have fostered, and institutions have adopted without external pressure, guided pathways programs to streamline educational pathways toward degree completion and helping guide students toward the same.

Looking at credit transfer

Wheelan is also chair of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions (C-RAC), a collective of seven regional organizations responsible for the accreditation of roughly 3,000 colleges and universities. She says that body has been a force for policy change in the past, such as establishing standards for distance education and competency-based education, leading institutions to integrate these standards in their regional standards.

Wheelan says one area where C-RAC may take action in the future is improving transfer of credit between institutions.

“We want to see how we can encourage our institutions to remove the barriers that students face in trying to get credits transferred, which is obviously a huge issue for community colleges,” Wheelan says. “We’re moving slowly on it, but we are moving.”

About the Author

David Tobenkin
is a freelance writer in the greater Washington, D.C., area.