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Post-secondary accreditation in the US a subject of increasing debate

Like most countries, the post-secondary landscape in the US has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Some of the most pertinent features of this new landscape include wider access to education for different classes and groups of students – including more non-traditional schools and credentials in the mix – a more diverse student body, and rising costs for students.

Amid this evolving landscape, some high-ranking education stakeholders in the US are considering the way American post-secondary institutions are accredited. This was very much in evidence at the January annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA calls itself a national voice for quality assurance and is an association of 3,000 US degree-granting colleges and universities that recognises 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organisations.

As it stands now, accreditation – which from the student’s standpoint is how they determine if a school is worth their money and meets appropriate quality standards – occurs via a self-reporting and peer review process. It is a shared process among a group of regional accrediting organisations, national accreditors, and organisations concerned with programme-specific accreditation.

At the CHEA meeting, however, Senator Tom Harkin, who is the chair of the important Senate committee Health, Education, Labour, and Pensions (HELP) called into question the ethics of the current US accreditation system, saying:

“… the self-reporting and peer review nature of the accreditation process …. exposes it to manipulation by schools that are more concerned with their bottom line than with academic quality and improvement.”

More is needed to protect and inform students, says Senator Harkin

Mr Harkin noted that with over 7,000 higher education institutions in the accreditation landscape – demonstrating an expanding array of focuses and types – it may be that the system needs, at the least, some innovation. He stressed that more emphasis needs to be put on student outcomes, and basically argued for a more student-centred rather than institution-centred approach to accreditation.

Senator Harkin contended that transparency to students and their families is a huge issue, and that many students are in the dark about such things as whether they could transfer credits between institutions and whether the degrees they are paying for (and often, going into huge debt for) will actually end up getting them the jobs they want and need.

Will the federal government play a bigger role?

To date, accreditation in the US has been widely dispersed among a loose network of regional bodies, for the most part. Change, however, is afoot. The Senate HELP committee is actively reviewing the US Higher Education Act and planning to introduce amendments as part of a legislative “reauthorisation” process later this year. And Senator Harkin is not the only federal education stakeholder who has spoken recently about his interest in strengthening accreditation processes. Inside Higher Ed reports that “the drumbeat of support for changing the US accreditation system … [is] playing out at Congressional hearings, in the Obama White House, and at think-tank panel discussions.”

At the CHEA conference, CHEA President Judith S. Eaton went on the record as saying: “We think there are definitely going to be some significant changes to accreditation when Congress drafts a new version of the Higher Education Act.”

If their mandates are not to be threatened by more federal oversight, it certainly seems that prudent accrediting agencies will consider ways of innovating and better communicating with students. Inside Higher Ed quotes Ms Eaton as saying: “There is not time to waste,” and that accreditors and their supporters should “organise and act.”

One much-talked-about-case in the debate was the recent decision of the US accrediting body North Central Higher Learning Commission’s (HLC) to strip Ivy Bridge College of its ability to offer associate degree programmes in partnership with Tiffin University.

Ivy Bridge College was founded as a two-year online institution with mandate of offering an affordable way to boost the transfer rate of students to four-year institutions. To cut a long story short: critics say that Ivy Bridge’s punishment occurred not because it wasn’t serving students well, but because it was trying to innovate and its partnership with Tiffin did not fit the guidelines of the HLC. You can read more on the Ivy Bridge case here, but the point is that student outcomes are alleged by some to not be the first priority in the HCL/Tiffin/Ivy Bridge case.

The Intensive English Programmes (IEPs) sector in the US is facing similar issues, in that new entrants to the sector are experiencing challenges in getting accredited – not because of any quality issues but because of bureaucratic red tape.

Change is needed, but so is caution

As heated as the debate is becoming over accreditation, some speakers at the CHEA conference – even vocal critics of the current state of American accreditation – warned against demonising the current structure altogether. As Inside Higher Ed reports, Andrew P. Kelly, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s higher education centre, commented that while change is needed, “some of the rhetoric criticising accreditation may be overblown” and that it has become the “bogeyman,” “the catchall complaint for a wide range of problems in higher education.”

Another presenter, Paul L. Gaston, Trustees Professor at Kent State University and the author of a new book, Higher Education Accreditation: How It’s Changing, Why it Must, played humorously off a famous Winston Churchill quote about democracy on his last slide:

“Accreditation in its present form may be the worst possible form of quality assurance, except of course for all the other forms that might replace it.”

Accreditation is not just an American issue

The recent CHEA conference highlighted the accreditation debate in the US, but the underlying questions reach much further. Also at CHEA was a debate about whether a single set of quality standards should extend past national boundaries and be applicable to multiple countries. University World News explains the provocation for the discussion as including these factors:

“There has been an explosion of transnational higher education, new technologies and global student, academic and labour mobility, and the emergence of new forms of knowledge and skills in an increasingly integrated world.”

Central to the discussion was the issue of the different levels of quality in post-secondary education systems across the world and how difficult this would make a coherent international standards system. However, there are certainly regional quality control organisations that exist harmoniously with national ones. University World News cites the example of the UK system, which has one national quality standard as well as separate – but complementary ones – in each of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom.

Whatever happens, there is certainly a growing need to assure international students of the quality of institutions in other countries as well as the relevance and transferability of credits they receive while studying abroad.

This extends, as well, to the growing number of non-traditional options for students around the world – described by CHEA’s Ms Eaton as programmes that are “mostly online, noncredit, unconnected to a formal sequence of courses or a degree programme, low-cost or free and unaccredited.”

Some have proposed the introduction of “course-level” accreditation in the US, but as much as it may be needed – especially for the growing number of students requiring financial aid and quality assurance in this sector – it won’t be easy.

Still as Burck Smith, CEO of StraighterLine, a company offering roughly 50 low-cost online courses, notes in Inside Higher Ed, “The unaccredited sector is getting bigger … it has to be addressed, somehow.”

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