Crafting a Vision for Accreditation Reform

Posted September 13, 2016 at 5:00am

For the first time in recent memory, the arcane subject of college and university accreditation has taken center stage during Congressional hearings, U.S. Department of Education rulemaking, and policy agendas on both sides of the aisle.

While there is broad recognition of the significant problems in the current system, until recently it has been unclear how to reform accreditation or what its changing role in the overall quality assurance system needs to become. Nor has there been a proposal that lays out a concrete vision for change.  That’s why we have teamed up to offer a framework that we believe can lead to new approaches to break this impasse and improve the quality of higher education that Americans depend on, rooted in deep research into domestic and international models and robust engagement with a wide range of stakeholders and experts.

Key pillars of that framework include a sharp focus on student outcomes as the basis for assessing quality, reduced regulatory burdens, and differentiating accreditor engagement with institutions based on results — which, together, can lead to meaningful and constructive reform of accreditation. It’s time to create a federal recognition process that supports accreditors in the transition to and use of systems that are differentiated and focused on outcomes. Furthermore, it just makes sense to develop new structures and roles that enhance collaboration among accreditors, states, and the federal government to ensure that more students — especially those who have been traditionally underserved — are able to complete a valuable credential.

We both have watched this issue for decades, from a variety of federal, state, nonprofit, and philanthropic roles.  For close to 30 years, questions about institutional quality and student performance have co-existed with questions about the proper role for the federal government in oversight and accountability.  But, until now, we haven’t seen an opening for real change.  The politics around higher education are as complicated as ever, and reform will be no easy task for policymakers and practitioners.  So, why are we hopeful that the timing is right for a new approach?

Because for the first time, policymakers, higher education leaders, and stakeholders from many points of view recognize that creating access to higher education is important, but not enough. Completion and a successful transition to the workforce must be expected outcomes in all postsecondary programs and institutions that benefit from federal financial aid programs.

It’s also a great opportunity for bipartisan consensus. This framework represents an effort to balance many interests and advance areas of common agreement, for example, by emphasizing student outcomes in a significant new way.  It instructs that traditional “input” measures of institutional quality (such as curriculum and instruction, faculty and leadership, student support services, and resource management) should be evaluated only in light of available student outcome measures (such as graduation, employment and loan repayment rates).  And our hope is that our framework can evolve over time, particularly as data systems improve and start to accommodate new measures of learning outcomes. At the same time, to ensure that the focus on these essential interests does not waver, the framework identifies opportunities to reduce regulations in other areas.

Among the existing requirements that we believe could be removed are mandatory site visits to each and every institution. We need to move away from a review process that forces all accreditors and institutions to comply with the same lengthy list of requirements, regardless of performance. We currently have the ability (albeit imperfect) to collect baseline student outcome data from all institutions that receive federal funding.  Interpreting the data and the underlying institutional context to form an action plan for improved outcomes will require professional judgment, not simplistic assessment; but we have the foundations in place to create a smarter regulatory system that uses the data we now have.

Building on effective and long-standing elements of the higher education accreditation process, this framework for accreditation reform would focus federal oversight on student outcomes and better deploy time, resources, and attention to those institutions that need it most.  Refining the scope of the federal role and setting a common baseline for institutional performance in this way would increase transparency, reduce regulatory bloat, improve quality, and strengthen student outcomes.

Richard Riley is a former U.S. secretary of Education and former governor of South Carolina. Jamie Merisotis serves as president & CEO of Lumina Foundation.