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Pursuing National Accreditation to Create Access Quickly While Proving Quality and Rigor

The EvoLLLution | Pursuing National Accreditation to Create Access Quickly While Proving Quality and Rigor
Earning national accreditation was critical to eVersity’s capacity to serve its learners, but accreditation standards must evolve to ensure innovative education providers like this are able to follow through on their missions and expand access to education.

Launching an innovative online education division—one that vastly expands access to postsecondary programming while also providing students a valuable outcome and credential at the end of their program—is critical for modern and forward-thinking colleges and universities. However, while educational content and divisions themselves might move and evolve quickly, unfortunately accreditation standards have remained firmly engrained in a past era. For the University of Arkansas System eVersity, this meant turning to a national accreditor—the Distance Education Accreditation Commission—rather than a regional accreditor to achieve the recognition and benefits that come with having earned accreditation status.

In this interview, Michael Moore reflects on the supposed differences between national and regional accreditation standards and reflects on how accreditors more broadly must evolve to serve the best interests of 21st-century students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the fundamental differences between national and regional accreditation?

Michael Moore (MM): The primary difference between national and regional accreditors is one of focus and geography, not one of quality or standards. National accreditors tend to focus on a particular sector or profession (e.g., faith-based institutions, law schools, teacher preparation schools) and the regional accreditors, as the name implies, are geographically determined.

Unfortunately, there is a misperception regarding the difference between the national and the regional accreditors with the assumption being that regional accreditation represents a higher standard of quality. This assumption is not supported by the evidence. All accreditors—national and regional—approved by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation must meet the same standards and go through the same review process. The manner in which each accreditor meets those standards may vary, but they are all evaluated against the same criteria for approval and recognition.

It is a mistake to assume that national accreditors are of a lower quality. All one has to do is follow the scandals in higher education to observe that they are just as likely to occur in schools accredited by regional accreditors as those with national accreditation. Moreover, we are kidding ourselves if we think there is a common level of quality within a given accreditor. The truth is there is tremendous variation within every accreditation organization—from the most elite schools to the most severely challenged ones.

The bottom line is this: National and regional accreditors, just like the schools they accredit, must periodically be reviewed and they must demonstrate they meet the required standards for continued recognition as an accreditor by the U.S. Department of Education. Any quality determinations based on the labels “national” or “regional” are not supported by compelling evidence.

Evo: Why did eVersity decide to pursue national accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission?

MM: There are two primary reasons why the University of Arkansas System eVersity sought accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC).

First, eVersity is a 100 percent online university and DEAC is the only accrediting organization that focuses exclusively on online programs. Given the expertise of DEAC in evaluating online programs, we thought it was simply logical to turn to the organization that was best prepared to evaluate fully online learning.

At every step of the review process, our initial belief was reconfirmed. Throughout the process, DEAC reviewed our curriculum and institutional operations from both a subject-matter perspective (to confirm that our curriculum adhered to best practices) and an operational perspective (to assure appropriate delivery via the online modality). For the critics of national accreditation, it is worth noting that, in addition to reviewers from DEAC-affiliated institutions, we were reviewed by faculty and administrators from regionally accredited institutions. While I am not aware of the identity of every reviewer at every stage of the process, every member of our onsite team, except one, was currently or previously employed by an institution with regional accreditation. The team included an individual from a state flagship institution and a former senior academic administrator from an Ivy League university. In my opinion, the quality of our onsite team was every bit as impressive as the onsite teams I have had experience with at regional accreditors, thus reconfirming the notion that national and regional reviews are far more similar than folks tend to assume.

Second, in launching a new institution, we have made a conscious effort to do what is in the best interest of our students. Our target population is adult learners who stopped out of school. Our typical student has attended at least two colleges and has 70 prior college credits—most without having earned any college credential. These students are looking for a way to complete their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees. This population is financially challenged—too often they have debt from their prior college attempts, but without the credential that will allow them to earn the wages that are associated with a degree holder.

It’s no secret that financial aid is critically important for this population and, as we investigated options, it became clear that DEAC offered a pathway to accreditation and possible access to Title IV in a shorter amount of time than regional accreditors. Moreover, and this should not be understated, DEAC staff were very helpful and willing to work with us as we navigated the initial accreditation process. There was simply a positive fit between our objective and DEAC that made this path the best choice for us.

Evo: What are the potential downsides of going this route versus pursuing regional accreditation?

MM: If there is a risk to national accreditation, it is that some regionally accredited institutions may not, on first blush, accept transfer credits and graduate programs may not recognize a degree earned at a nationally accredited institution. As you might have guessed, I think this sort of decision making is flawed since it is inappropriate to draw quality distinctions based on the source of accreditation. Let’s keep in mind that all regional and national accreditors recognized by the US Department of Education must meet the same standards. Are there institutions who meet minimum accreditation standards, but have room for improvement? You bet. But this disparity exists among both regional and national accreditors and to use an overly simplistic rule to recognize transfer credit or a graduation credential doesn’t recognize or honor the value of the peer review process.

I will add that the overly simplistic rules whereby a regionally accredited school will only—and automatically—accept the credits from a regionally accredited school doesn’t serve students well. If most faculty and administrators in higher education don’t fully understand the nuances of the accreditation process, then how can we expect a student to reasonably understand these distinctions?

From the student’s perspective, they see that an institution is accredited and able to participate in Title IV (and I’m not even going to touch on the confusion created for students related to programs that claim various forms of discipline-specific accreditation). Do we really expect them to understand that credits earned at a nationally accredited institution might not later be accepted by a regionally accredited institution if they opt to transfer? And can we, with a straight face, tell the student that the freshman English composition course they took at the nationally accredited school is not of the same quality as the freshman English composition course from the regionally accredited institution?

The reality is that those evaluating transfer credit often know little about the quality of the instruction or the learning outcomes at other institutions, regardless of the source of accreditation. And for large campuses offering multiple sections of the same course, there is the real possibility that there are substantial differences in learning outcomes among faculty in the same department! I believe it does an injustice to students to suggest that the source of accreditation should be used to evaluate the quality of the course and, therefore, the appropriateness of accepting the course in transfer. The same holds true for students who, years after earning an undergraduate degree from a nationally accredited institution, opt to attend graduate school only to find many regionally accredited schools who will not recognize their undergraduate degree. It is important to note that the use of this overly simplistic practice is not required by the regional accrediting organizations, but has become a crutch used by regionally accredited institutions because institutions avoid engaging in the difficult work of evaluating the quality of learning.

Evo: How must approaches to regional accreditation evolve to ensure innovative institutions and programs are able to serve their students?

MM: Let me take a slightly different angle on this question and speak more broadly about how accreditors can improve to better support students and the institutions they accredit. Based on my comments above, it is pretty obvious I believe that there needs to be greater reciprocity between national and regional accreditors in terms of transfer credit and degree recognition. An additional perspective on this point is to take it from the taxpayer’s point-of-view. Consider a financial aid-eligible student at a Title IV participating nationally accredited institution enrolled in college algebra. The student later transfers to a Title IV participating regionally accredited institution and is told that the college algebra credit won’t transfer because it came from a nationally accredited school and the only solution is for the student to retake college algebra. So the taxpayer gets to pay for this class twice and the student runs out of aid earlier than they should thereby increasing the risk that they will not have sufficient aid to carry them through to graduation. This is not only an inefficient use of taxpayer funds, but it is not in the student’s best interest, especially since there is absolutely no reason to conclude that the first college algebra course is of a lower quality than the subsequent course. Ideally, institutions should evaluate the quality of the learning that has occurred and use that as a basis for determining the appropriateness of accepting the transfer credit. Absent that rigorous, important, and time-consuming work, if a transfer evaluation crutch must be used it would be preferable to have the institutions adopt the policy of accepting transfer credits and recognizing degrees from any institution accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Such a policy would be both more student-centered and provide better stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Another area that requires attention is recognition that innovation is frequently hampered by the accreditation process. Even relatively small changes at an institution can take months to implement, require excessive fees, and require prior approval from the accreditor. For institutions that are attempting to respond to a rapidly changing economy or workforce needs, this can be a significant hindrance that private-sector partners have difficulty comprehending. As a recommendation, I suggest we allow accredited institutions in good standing to have the freedom to innovate as needed and then hold them accountable via appropriate periodic post-implementation reviews. Naturally, there are some changes that are of such a magnitude (e.g., role and scope, change of ownership, etc.) that they merit deep, prior review, but there are many changes where it can reasonably be argued that the institution has already demonstrated an ability to be an effective manager of its affairs. Such a change would shift the burden from prior approval to one of accountability for results, and recognize that the institution has already gone through tremendous hurdles to reach accredited status, and allow institution’s to be more responsive to today’s marketplace.

Finally, in my opinion, accreditors need to be concerned about the ROI associated with the accreditation process. Let me be clear, many aspects of the accreditation process have value, especially the process of self-examination associated with the self-study and the presentation of evidence to demonstrate compliance with accreditation standards. However, for many who have been closely involved with the accreditation process, there comes a time in the process where the requirements are no longer improving the institution, but are now designed to meet immaterial administrative and bureaucratic requirements that have nothing to do with student learning outcomes. Tremendous monetary resources (both fees and FTEs) are devoted to a process that, if made more streamlined, could be repurposed to make real improvements in the institution. It is my contention that the accreditation process needs to focus on the two things that really matter—demonstrating student learning is being accomplished and keeping the student’s best interest front and center.

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