Reflections on US Senate HELP Committee Hearing on Accreditation

by: Kathryn Dodge

Senator Lamar Alexander, a seasoned veteran of higher education, held a hearing on the topic of accreditation on June 17, 2015.  At the end of the hearing he expressed a commitment to focus on quality not compliance, declared there is cacophony regarding the validity of accreditation, and suggested a more segmented approach for institutional accreditation, one based on institutional types in lieu of geography. The current system has both national and regional accreditors.

It is first important to note that the TRIAD, an attempt to make distinctions between the roles of states, the federal government and accreditors has been loosely applied over the years. In this model states are focused on consumer protection, federal government on fiscal stability and accreditors on quality. Senator Alexander’s first point indicates a clear interest in engagement in quality, formerly in the purview of accreditors. I agree that states (as opposed to the federal government) are in a much better position to monitor consumer protection as they are closer to consumers and have access to context that is not possible when brought to scale.* By relying on states to focus on consumer protection issues, the accreditors on quality, the federal government can maintain their focus on fiscal stability.   This line has been blurred as value of higher education is questioned by the public given student debt issues and economic challenges resulting in unemployed (or underemployed) college graduates.

His second and third points promote changes in accreditation that allow for institutional selection of a regional accreditor that is now bound by geography, and formulation of quality assurance standards designed for specific types of institutions (criteria might be based on institutional history, ownership, etc.). This would, no doubt, reinforce market segmentation.

There are three issues likely to sustain attention for consideration in the next reauthorization.  Data, transparency and revised accreditor scope. The first issue, data, was framed as “Standard dashboard measures” by Peter Ewell of National Center for Education Management Systems (NCHEMS). This approach may be linked to a U.S. Departmental of Education driven “Data Review Process” as proposed by Ann Neal of American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Ann’s proposal is to replace accreditors as Title IV gatekeepers with a federal data system. Using data in this way generates a fear that using quantifiable information without contextual information fuels erroneous assumptions. This approach eliminates the inherent value of our current institutional accreditation system that is based on geography.

The second issue, transparency, or public reporting, is currently uneven, as accreditors vary in their philosophical perspectives on the topic. Some would argue that such unevenness exposes useful distinctions about the acceditors themselves. It is likely that the third issue, revisions in current accreditor scope, will be seriously considered given that it was a point made by Senator Alexander at the conclusion of witness testimony and committee member questions.

* An example. When I was a state regulator, I kept a log of student complaints.  We reached out to institutions and did so aggressively when patterns emerged.  Not only did we visit institutions, we informed institutional board members and when it was a for-profit, a contact at corporate.  In order to do this, two forms of communication were required.  The first was clearly stated written expectations and consistent follow up when expectations were not met.  The second form of communication was proactive and relationship based. Intentionally established and cultivated relationships yield information about changes within the organization (personnel and otherwise) that enable effective phone calls or visits to express concern and consequences when concerns arise.  This worked quite well in a small state (1.3 mill people, about 30 institutions) and a small staff.

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