The issue of accreditation seems to be everywhere lately. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
After all, if federal policy makers are now willing to bail out the nation’s leading banks and buy equity stakes in auto makers because those companies are “too big to fail,” they will probably have few reservations about regulating an education system that they now understand is “too important to fail.”
As I wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in June, it is clear that regardless of party, policy makers are clearly aware of the importance of education and are demanding improved performance and more information, from preschool to graduate school. In this environment, we should expect college accreditation to come under significant scrutiny.
From President Obama’s first days in office, he has made higher education a top priority and directed tens of billions of dollars in new funds to students and institutions through the economic stimulus act and legislation to transform the student loan program (see “Eye on Washington” on page 12 for more about the Pell Grant program, in particular). And as we all know, with those funds—and the administration’s emphasis on attainment and degree production—have come high expectations. The administration already has indicated a willingness to take action when it believes that higher education institutions are not adequately serving students’ interests. It also has clearly signaled its interest in using data to measure institutional performance and student outcomes, and it has invested in state efforts to create data systems to track students from pre-kindergarten through graduate school.
Higher education has so far navigated its way through the environment of increased regulatory interest without substantial changes to our system of quality assurance or federally mandated outcomes assessment. But that has only bought us time. As we look ahead, we must keep three facts in mind:
- Interest in accountability is bipartisan, and the pendulum has swung toward more regulation in virtually all sectors.
- The economic crisis is likely to spur increased calls from policy makers to control college prices and demonstrate that students are getting value for the dollar.
- The size of the federal budget deficit will force every sector that receives federal support to produce more and better evidence that an investment of federal funds will pay dividends for individuals and society.
The next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will begin in two or three years. That is the window in which we have to operate. If we do not seize the opportunity to strengthen voluntary peer accreditation as a rigorous test of institutional quality, grounded in appropriate measures of student learning, we place at risk a precious bulwark against excessive government intervention, a bulwark that has allowed American higher education to flourish. When it comes to safeguarding the quality, diversity, and independence of American higher education, accreditors hold the keys to the kingdom.
ACE remains fully engaged in this issue. Most recently, the ACE Board of Directors has asked that we develop a report that offers actionable recommendations for reforming and strengthening this essential process to effectively respond to the current higher education environment and the new challenges it presents.
To meet the challenges before us, we must be nimble and flexible. We must listen to one another and resist the impulse to harden our positions. We must be creative and open to solutions from outside the borders of our accreditation region, our sectors, and even our nation. Finally, we must be willing to compromise. No single approach will please everyone, but surely we can devise solutions that are better than those that might be imposed upon us.
Molly Corbett Broad
American Council on Education