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Accreditation: Disruption or Evolution? (Part 2)

Accreditation: Disruption or Evolution? (Part 2)
Although accreditors have experienced change in the past two decades, they have tended to be reactive rather than proactive.

The following is the conclusion of Chari Leader-Kelley’s two-part series on the accreditation of non-collegiate-sponsored training and education providers. In the last article, Leader-Kelley outlined a few scenarios many first-generation postsecondary students find themselves in and discussed the importance of transparency and accountability in higher education. In this piece, she looks at the transformation of accreditation up to the present, and where the future might take us.

Accreditation Disruption?

Today’s debate seems to be over whether our accrediting bodies need a radical change or if we need a new system or a separate supplemental accrediting system (targeting competencies and learning outcomes tied to student success in the job market). Given all we know about our current accreditation processes, it seems to me it is possible to “tighten” them to make self-studies more concise and more descriptive of the data on key indicators of student success and institutional performance. The model itself may need a major adjustment. Institutional autonomy and faculty governance have shielded colleges and universities from “academic standards,” or benchmarks imposed from external groups.  Accrediting bodies have had to delicately balance institutional preferences with the actual business of accreditation. After all, the colleges foot the bill for accreditation visits and their leaders serve on accreditation teams. This alone makes substantive change difficult for accrediting bodies as constituted today.

Evolutionary Change?

Accreditors have already seen a great deal of change over the past two decades:

  • The advent of the new post-traditional student (now far outnumbering traditional students)

  • The expansion and legitimization of online learning (including entire degree programs)

  • The national rapid growth of for-profit institutions

  • Increased student mobility leading to more emphasis on transfer credits/decisions

  • Proliferation of courses/training from non-collegiate providers (including ACE-evaluated military training)

  • Accelerated degrees, new majors and new delivery formats

  • Increased interest in prior learning assessment (PLA)

  • Unique partnerships between for-profit and nonprofit entities, including on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

  • Increased do-it-yourself degree practices using Khan Academy, Saylor Foundation courses, MOOCs, PLA and for-credit tests (CLEP, DSST, UExcel Exams) to package degrees and aggregate credit

  • Alternative credentials such as badges or professional licensures/certifications

While they have made changes (including embracing Total Quality Management at one point), they tend to be more reactive than proactive. And, because of this reactive stance, institutions are often confused by what accreditors might approve and how accreditors might view innovation.

Regional accreditation bodies and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation are reacting to this shifting landscape by focusing on how they can adjust their work in ways that will appease both policy makers and institutions, some of whom have been constrained by accreditation fears. For instance, the theme of the 2014 Western Association of Schools and Colleges Conference is “As Others See Us: Higher Education 360°.” Clearly, regional accrediting bodies are sensitive to the impetus for change.

It will be interesting to see how traditional accreditors will ultimately adjust. As faculty and higher education leaders retire with the baby boomer wave of retirements, the door will open wider for new models and structures.

Future Scenario:

A 42-year-old student who has already earned an associate’s degree, had extensive training in banking, taken several MOOCs in advanced financial areas and various courses in executive seminars is able to bring all of her learning to a college that will advise her on how best to complete her degree and ensure her business knowledge will serve her as she seeks career advancement. She will be able to look at various career pathways (how to become a local bank vice-president; what she would need to move into wealth management or move laterally to the marketing department; or what she could do should she wish to teach business at a community college).

She will be able to see the total cost of her degree and her income possibilities post-degree. She will know how much it will cost her in student loans and how long it will take her to repay those loans. And she will be able to complete her degree in a way that enables documentation of her competencies and that is affordable. She will be given access to graduation rates, alumni, a history of tuition increases, PLA, accreditation information regarding her institution and see how graduates have fared in the job market. She will also be advised that completing her degree is a milestone on her way to becoming a lifelong learner.

To learn more about the accreditation demand, please click here

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