Commentary

Don’t Tear Down Accreditation. Build on What’s Right About It.

June 08, 2017

In a recent Chronicle essay on the alleged failures of accreditation, the author uses as her primary example the downfall of Corinthian Colleges, whose oversight was the responsibility of one national accreditor, now stripped of federal recognition.

The essay also argues that the biggest problem in quality control is that accreditors "don’t have the budgets or staffing to do their job properly" and says that accreditors are not charging their member colleges enough. But rather than being weaknesses, these are among the quality-assurance system’s biggest strengths — its abilities to keep costs low and to efficiently leverage thousands of highly qualified volunteers to conduct a rigorous peer-review process.

Consider, for example, that the seven regional accreditors that are members of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, of which I am chair, send more than 4,000 expert volunteers to study the effectiveness of 3,000 institutions. Mobilizing such an army of college presidents, provosts, and faculty, along with public members expert in business, finance, law, and policy hardly qualifies as being understaffed. In fact, this peer-review system is the very means by which we provide outstanding service to the public at a low cost.

In our efforts to ensure fiscal and educational integrity, regional accreditors rely on sophisticated tools and reliable data to assess the quality of all aspects of institutions, including teaching, learning, governance, management, and finance.

Some critics have been calling for major changes to accreditation, such as putting government in charge of quality control or eliminating peer review, that would be less effective and fraught with problems. They would replace the efficient system of peer review with one having less oversight, more potential for government intrusion, and higher costs that would be passed along to students. Even calls for independent oversight by auditors or inspectors who are trained to ensure compliance would duplicate what is already being done. To be sure, accreditors are not perfect. We have had a learning curve in understanding how to guarantee educational quality among multistate institutions that operate more like corporations than traditional colleges. Bolstering our technology systems and ability to use metrics wisely are continuing processes, as is ensuring that the institutions we oversee, including underresourced ones, are building capacity to provide useful data on key aspects of their performance.

At times accreditors may seem slow to take action. But our job isn’t simply to shut down colleges that don’t meet standards. We also need to understand what’s happening within institutions, point out needed changes, and monitor improvement, relying on firm but fair reviews to hold institutions accountable. We push them to improve and sanction those that significantly underperform.

In fact, recent data show that regional accreditors denied or withdrew accreditation, issued a warning, or put institutions on probation in 15 percent of their 456 comprehensive review decisions last year. But that does not count the myriad times that, rather than applying sanctions, we required institutions to upgrade their practices. Our first priority is helping colleges produce better results for their students before they reach the sanctioning phase. The focus on outcomes has required us to expand our data capacities in ways that promise to improve the performance of colleges across every sector, and particularly those that serve the most challenging populations. We are using expanded data capacity and new technology systems to benchmark performance across diverse types of institutions and exploring the use of predictive analytics as an additional tool to be used in understanding institutional effectiveness.

Accreditation is changing. Lawmakers and policy analysts should recognize the differences among accreditors and not be tempted to base their decisions and calls for improvement on ideas that dismiss a sophisticated peer-review system that has served the nation well for 100 years. It is time to recognize the strengths of the accreditation model — and build on them.

Barbara E. Brittingham is chair of the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions and president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education, New England Association of Schools and Colleges.