Saturday, March 12, 2011

The difficult present and hopeful future for accreditors

Since attending the NWCCU annual meeting, I've been thinking about the future of accreditors and accreditation (a bit of that thinking is also available here).  Clearly, accreditors will be under pressure from federal and state governments anxious about accountability and hungry for greater influence over higher education.  They will also be under pressure from the market--from for-profit schools, alternative models of accreditation, and thinkers who argue that our system is broken in part because it cannot regulate itself.

Readers will note that these locations of pressure--government on one hand and the private sector on the other--locate accreditors as part of civil society, that third sector that stands between private interest and governmental interests.  Accreditors, though, have rarely taken this position, often preferring either a quasi-governmental role (creating and handing out regulations, ensuring compliance with the rules) or a consultative role (dispensing advice to individual campuses using a semi-proprietary process and working in an environment of confidentiality).

If accreditors were to embrace their position as part of civil society, they would continue what they currently do.   But they would also do more of the following, all of which, in my view, would strengthen accreditors and higher education while maintaining some measure of independence from capture by government or private interest.

1. Build and mobilize networks.  NWCCU has 162 member institutions from all institution types. There are obvious networks to be built here--among all campuses, among similar campuses, among campuses in the same region--and obvious issues to mobilize about (more on which below).  Accreditors haven't generally done this sort of work because of their tradition of working with individual schools.  There is space, though, for coalitions of schools to influence policy, coalitions which could be built relatively simply from within the ranks of regionally-accredited schools.

2. Support commonly desired outcomes. In the past 20 years accreditors have moved away from demanding that member schools embrace certain practices to demanding that schools define and achieve their own missions.  At the same time, the policy discussion has moved the opposite direction, with calls for nationally standardized tests, improved retention and graduation, greater affordability,clearer links with K-12, and better learning.  Accreditors could lead in these areas if they embraced a set of minimum standards.  If fewer than 50% of your students graduate in 6 years (say, for example), you immediately get first an infusion of training and support from your accreditor and, if that doesn't help, censure from that accreditor.  Such rules will, I expect, come from the federal government if they don't come from somewhere else.

3. Develop research and advocacy emphases.  Accreditors sit on huge data sets that, if analyzed well, could tell us a great deal about the practices that lead to success and failure on most of the issues facing higher education.  Part of living in civil society is to use these data to make public arguments--in the press, before congress, in public fora, at academic conferences--about what works.

4. Support experimentation with mission and institutional design. As I argued in my post about strategic planning, institutions of higher education are coalescing around a certain set of outcomes and certain approaches to them. (Why, for example, do most community colleges (or any other sector for that matter) provide similar offerings, on similar campuses, at a similar price?)  What experimentation there is with institutional design and mission comes either from individual campuses or from new entrants in the market.  Accreditors are uniquely positioned to identify gaps in the market and support responses.  They have both the data and the influence to encourage campuses to step into new niches in the market.  Or in an even more radical possibility, they have the membership and access to the wisdom of enough people that they, themselves, could incubate new institutions of higher education.  Schools in a region in general do a poor job of graduating first-generation hispanic students?  Why couldn't the accreditor, using its networks to catalyze the effort, design a new institution to do just that?

If accreditors took up any of these suggestions seriously, they would come to look quite different from their current guises.  But they would also be in a position to shape the discussion about higher ed and push relentlessly for improvement.  We certainly need more institutions in civil society to do just that.

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