Commission On Higher Ed Aims Sight On Accreditation

I hope ACRLog readers have been following the proceedings of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education over the last few months. Sometimes we are so focused on our libraries and institutions that we neglect to pay attention to the industry in which we work. I suppose that’s one reason I recently shared my higher education reading list. This morning the major higher education news outlets reported on a big development from the Commission, though I don’t think it was unexpected given its nature and the past work of its chairman.

Previously the Commission, which is focusing on how to create greater accountability for American IHEs, seemed to be concentrating on a national standards test for college students. Today they turn their attention to the regional accreditation process itself. In a issue paper released by the commission, they essentially question what in their view is:

a system that is created, maintained, paid for and governed by institutions is necessarily more likely to look out for institutional interests.

The Commission appears to have a number of problems with the current accreditation system beyond the fact that those being accredited create and support the system (I don’t think I’m stretching things by saying that the Commission is suggesting that because colleges and universities support the system, we go too easy on each other):
* accreditation standards between the regional agencies vary too widely
* specialized program accreditations are completely voluntary
* the quality of the higher education has fallen dramatically despite accreditation
* the current system if more focused on the needs of IHEs than the needs of the public
* the public has difficulty accessing accreditation data and reports

What is the solution to the problems of the existing accreditation system? More federal government oversight and involvement of course. The paper says the solution is:

A new organization could achieve the multiple needs for alignment. The Congress and the President could enact legislation creating The National Accreditation Foundation.

I believe it is Larry Hardesty who is fond of saying, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” in referring to such proposals. Having just went through the self-study process at my own institution, and having recently returned from participating on a re-accreditation review team at another institution, I would agree that the regional accreditation system – a system in which we review ourselves – is going to have some weaknesses and challenges. However, it is a system that in the opinion of many academics works effectively to maintain the quality of higher education. It is true, as the issue paper points out, that very few institutions ever lose their accreditation, but those who have worked within the system know that accreditation teams do observe and identify serious accountability flaws within institutions that are then closely monitored by the accrediting bodies until they are corrected. The thought of the federal government, especially given the ineptitude of the current administration, taking over the responsibility for higher education accreditation certainly sends a chill up my spine.

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