On Monday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, released a list of policy proposals as part of negotiated rule making related to the Higher Education Act. While I have many questions about the goals of these revisions and how they might impact those most susceptible to education scams, I am intrigued by the part of the list that addresses accreditation.
Several of the policies suggested appear to be a direct assault on regional accreditors. The reasons that they are a target are complicated, but one such reason seems to be a sense that they are creating barriers for innovation in education. This argument is fraught with contradictions and for-profit motives, to be sure, but the role of accrediting bodies that are wedded to traditional non-profit educational institutions is not unworthy of review.
Over the past 20 years, regional accreditors have truly transformed from evaluation criteria based on things universities have (faculty, libraries, students, and buildings) to things universities do (retention, graduation, learning/degree outcomes, and graduation placements). This transformation was, in part, provoked by the emergence of for-profit, online education and our need to grapple with how to evaluate learning in these differing environments. We resisted, argued, and then re-imagined our responsibilities. We maintained our right to define the parameters of “quality” education, but we no longer argue that we can’t assess our efforts.
As we all became (relatively) comfortable with program assessment and the focus on outcomes, our accrediting bodies asked us to improve our approaches and make it a regular part of what we do. In the process, we opened the door to developing quality online education because we articulated what our graduates should know. Whatever the environment, similar degrees should have similar outcomes. This is the best possible outcome of a robust peer review process. Relying on faculty and administrators from other universities to look at what we do and provide educated and responsible feedback works in this system. We understand what we’re looking at because there is a lot of common ground. Let’s be honest, this change was hard. We didn’t like doing it, but here we are.
Now we face something new and the peer review system is going to struggle to define its role again. In recent years there have been closures of large for-profit and small non-profit educational institutions and, along with those closures have come questions about the oversight provided by accreditors. The withdrawal of accreditation is powerful. It will close an institution, so it is imperative that these bodies develop good ways of monitoring finances. As participants in peer review accreditation processes, we are going to have to figure out reasonable questions to ask that can strengthen evaluation of less traditional and traditional educational institutions alike.
During an accreditation visit, when a university or college is struggling financially, peers are asked to offer feedback. This can be problematic. Most of us from the non-profit world can read a budget and see shortfalls in funding, but we are less prepared to provide insight into how to recover from that shortfall. Evaluating quality of education and the supporting infrastructures of faculty governance and transparency are things we are comfortable with. Developing plans for capturing market shares and differentiation of our educational “products” does not come easily to us.
At the heart of this challenge is not that we don’t value or support innovation, something DeVos seems to think we are doing, but that we see innovation in terms of learning, not in terms of money. We are not blind to changing work landscapes, we respond to those all the time, but we do so on the assumption that we are meeting a societal need, not a bottom line need. Now we are faced with considering some of the questions that a market oriented evaluation might raise. We will argue and resist, but then we must figure it out for three very important reasons.
Reason 1: Identifying a problem (financial or otherwise) during peer review will not be helpful if we don’t offer some guidance about how to recover. Ours is a collaborative process where we learn from each other. Ignoring the learning that needs to take place in the financial category makes peer evaluation a threat, not a helpful process. We have to figure out how to handle this part as a true mentoring opportunity.
Reason 2: We need to continue to impact the definitions of quality and viability, just like we did in the early conversations about online degrees. By being part of that conversation, we made sure that the measures for online learning were not narrowly evaluated on content delivery, but on learning experiences. We need to shape the questions surrounding financial viability the same way, so that we don’t end up with profit as a primary goal. We want reasonable comparisons to be made between for-profit and non-profit institutions, comparisons that keep students at the center of all we do.
Reason 3: Education is not about widgets. Students are complex and require nuanced educational experiences that reflect understanding their unique backgrounds and needs. And the focus of our degrees must anticipate not the job of the moment, but the long-term skills and habits of mind that our students will need as the landscape of work continuously changes. Our traditional, non-profit structures facilitate that nuanced, long-term thinking in ways that are not supported in organizations that produce quarterly reports. This is the thinking valued by regional accreditors associated with these types of educational organizations.
Higher education in the United States has long been built on peer review. It is our strength and it is what allows us to be innovative. One look at the inventions, discoveries, and even changing degree titles will tell the story of responsible, not reactive, innovation. This is supported by the integrity of our peer review processes and we need to hold onto them, because we know our context best.
Yet we are in for some hard work as we reshape the questions we are asking of each other. Demographics have changed the context for non-profit and for-profit organizations alike. Finances will have to be considered. But, the questions we ask must reflect our commitment to creating excellent learning environments for all. If they do, the value of our accrediting processes will remain strong.