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Gatekeepers Under Fire

Accreditors have long been recognized as higher education’s quality gatekeepers, but their inability to react to changes is drawing criticism from stakeholders industry-wide.

Accreditors are central to guaranteeing program and degree quality — ultimately the last hurdle to a program going live — and while many students know little about the process of accreditation, they favor the schools that have it.

“People know they don’t want to go to a school that doesn’t have it,” Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As higher education is going through a period of massive innovation and change, accreditation groups are finding themselves under fire. Ultimately, new arrivals on the postsecondary scene like competency-based programming and prior learning from massive open online courses are threatening the relevance of accreditors’ work.

The accreditors are fighting back, though, saying that the process is misunderstood by many outside of academia. Meanwhile, government bodies and other associations are loudly calling for major reforms in the accreditation industry.

“Quality, from Washington, D.C.’s standpoint, is job placements and loan paybacks,” Wheelan told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “That’s not our view of quality.”

While Wheelan notes that the financial model in higher education is in dire need of a change, she added that it is not the responsibility of accreditors to turn it around.

While it appears that accreditors appreciate the efforts to move higher education forward, there are also concerns about the protection of students when it comes to manipulating the traditional accreditation standards.

“I think change is coming, and we are responding to it,” Wheelan told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Nothing happens quickly for us. And that’s part of the problem.”