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Is Incremental Credentialing Compatible with Institutional Accreditation? (Part 1)

Incremental credentialing is a vital assessment model for higher education, as it allows institutions to recognize learning as it occurs, providing more opportunity to their students.

A Conversation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education 

Many in higher education believe it is difficult–if not impossible–to undertake large-scale innovations due to accreditation requirements. Our postsecondary system is degree-centric, organized around associate, baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees. The entry of nondegree credentials into these waters is not sitting so well; many are pointing to the challenges around quality assurance, and some are viewing nondegree credentials as an intrusive new species threatening to push out traditional degrees. Within this complex, rapidly changing system of educational waterways, there are many checks and balances–key among them, the requirements of institutional accreditation for approved colleges and universities.

The Credential As You Go (CAYG) initiative is proposing a major transformation of postsecondary education to an incremental credentialing system. What would this transformation mean for quality assurance, especially for accreditation? Is an incremental credential system compatible with accreditation? We recently interviewed Dr. Christy Faison, Senior Vice President for Accreditation Relations at the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), to explore these issues in a three-part conversation. Part 1 focuses on the role and scope of MSCHE, accreditation reviews of incremental credentialing changes, the myth that MSCHE standards block innovations like incremental credentialing and the role of accreditors in helping institutions understand the power of incremental credentialing

Holly Zanville (HZ):  How broad is MSCHE’s mission and scope?   

Christy Faison (CF): The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) is a voluntary, non-governmental, membership association that defines, maintains and promotes educational excellence across institutions with diverse missions, student populations and resources. Because MSCHE is an institutional accreditor, we examine institutions as a whole rather than specific programs within institutions. MSCHE provides education, quality assurance and other services to members. We conduct accreditation and pre-accreditation (candidacy status) activities for institutions of higher education in Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and many other geographic areas where the Commission elects to conduct accrediting activities, including evaluating distance and correspondence education programs offered at those institutions. MSCHE accredits institutions across the United States as well as globally.

HZ:  What is your role and what type of higher education background do you bring to your work? 

CF: I provide oversight for the Accreditation Relations unit which includes accreditation services, institutional support services and the as Vice President for Institutional Field Relations. Prior to joining MSCHE, I served at Rowan University in New Jersey in multiple roles: professor of education, Assistant Dean of Education, Associate Dean of Education, Associate Provost, Interim Provost and Special Assistant to the President. I’m also a former member of the Board of Examiners for the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education; the Boards of Directors for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the South Jersey Technology Park; and am just completing two years on the national Credential As You Go Phase 1 Advisory Board. 

Nan Travers (NT):  Do you think your background in traditional higher education systems  hindered or helped you in serving on the CAYG Advisory Board? 

CF: When I was asked to join the advisory board, I knew that coming from traditional higher education programs would provide an opportunity to learn a great deal about the changing role of credentialing in higher education. And my perspectives have matured quite a bit—as an institutional accreditor, my perspectives are often tied to quality assurance. My organization and others like it are highly interested in making sure all credentials appropriately represent an institution. So, it is important to bring a traditional higher education perspective to innovations like incremental credentialing.

NTWhat does an accreditation review look like for incremental credential changes at a campus at MSCHE?

CF: It will look like all our reviews. Our peer evaluators will ensure institutional incremental credentialing initiatives are coherent, rigorous, delivered by qualified individuals and assessing student learning. Evaluators also ensure the availability of appropriate student supports and  infrastructure too in any type of program including incremental credentials. 

HZ: Why do so many think accreditation standards do not permit innovation of the sort CAYG is proposing?

CF: What I tell institutions and others asking about incremental credentialing is, “I hope you did not hear me say no.” I remind them that they should not believe the myth that ‘accreditors won’t let us make changes, which is a common misperception. 

Accreditors have gotten a bad rap as for creating barriers to innovation and maintaining the status quo, which is not the case. Many institutional accreditors are not prescriptive about programs because programming is the institution’s domain. We ask that whatever the institutions develop comply with quality standards and that the institutions tell us how innovations are being implemented. Because MSCHE is part of the regulatory triad, as an institutional accreditor, we have to be sure institutions follow state and federal regulatory requirements The accreditor will review applicable changes to be sure that the institution does not get into trouble while implementing initiatives and does not get caught among any bad actors who may also be working in this space.

This whole notion of institutional accreditors being blockers has been persistent since I entered the higher ed field in the 1980s. I came to my university with the question, ‘What won’t accreditation let us do?’ I found as I moved into administration that I began to use that same kind of language (remind them that accreditation would not let us do certain things) to get our faculty to move in certain directions. I would say, ‘You know, we’ve got to do this because…’ So, I understand how administrators and campus leaders use accreditation to help institutions move in certain directions, but this has led to accreditors being seen as blockers to innovation as opposed to partners in innovation. If you look closely at our accreditation standards, you will see that we are not prescriptive.

We are asking institutions to demonstrate the quality and outcomes of their programs. Often when I hear others speaking about why accreditation is such a barrier, they’re referencing accreditation standards we no longer subscribe to. We have long since focused on outcomes, but I do admit that in the past, accreditation was very input-based. Like, how many of these do you have, how many of that? What percentage of? No longer.

But as an institutional accreditor we are not going to say, ‘You need six of these, seven of these, or 80% of these.’ We don’t have those bright line criteria around outcomes, but we do have standards. Now it’s also a criticism to say we don’t have those bright lines, but the bottom line is we’re not being barriers to innovation. If you’re going to propose an innovative program, do your homework and let us know how you can demonstrate that the outcomes of that program are appropriate for practices and expectations in higher education. We’re asking you to prove to us that you are fulfilling your mission, prove to us your programs are of high quality. And that includes proving your faculty and staff are prepared for the roles they have within your organization. The institution gets to provide to us whatever documentation and evidence they have at their disposal. 

So anytime an institution says, ‘We want you to do this, but you won’t let us,’ I say, ‘Let’s  stop and talk about it.’ Let that be the starting point. Yes, the institution needs to be attentive to our Commission’s accreditation standards. Most often we can talk our way through it, and people will say, ‘Well, we were going to have to do that anyway. We were going to have to make sure it was consistent. We were going to have to make sure we had sufficient resources. We were going to make sure we had qualified faculty.’

NT: Do you think accreditors have a role in helping institutions understand the power of an incremental system?

CF: We do. We can bring our perspectives to the innovation table. If an institution is interested in pursuing incremental credentialing, we can work hand-in-hand to support innovation, always focusing on high-quality learning experiences and opportunities for access and success. The common denominator is what benefits students most, to help them attain meaningful credentials. So many individuals have taken or participated in higher education and did not get a credential, or have not received credit for the work they have done. As a result, their learning is not recognized by employers and institutions.

HZ: Let’s pick up our conversation in Part 2, to focus on implementation strategies and what you see coming for future changes post-pandemic.

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