To Strengthen Higher Ed, We Must Look to Accreditation

At the U.S. Senate prepares for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), accreditation stands as one of the most important tools available to strengthen postsecondary education. Accreditation ultimately sets the standard for all colleges and universities to achieve.
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At the U.S. Senate prepares for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), accreditation stands as one of the most important tools available to strengthen postsecondary education. Accreditation ultimately sets the standard for all colleges and universities to achieve. Underlying this standard, though, is the hope that all institutions of higher education will strive to exceed the standard, seeking the innovation and outcomes that will keep our position of having the strongest higher education system in the world.

One particularly important change in higher education that will likely impact accreditation is how students interact with postsecondary providers, as postsecondary education continues to navigate shifts in demographics, economics, technology and globalization.

The expansion of the postsecondary sector will offer students far greater choice in where, what, and how they study. One can expect more mixing and matching. That is, studying at a variety of different traditional and nontraditional institutions, which can be expected to distinguish themselves by area of specialization, length of their courses of study, choice of instructional delivery systems and cost. This, combined with advances in brain research with regard to learning and the development of software tied to those advances, will permit students to select the course of study most consistent with their personal needs and learning styles. Instruction is likely to be available to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the location of their choice -- at home, at work, on the commuter train, on vacation or in a hotel room. Postsecondary education is for the most part provider driven. In years ahead, it will become increasingly consumer-driven, particularly in the manner of media.

Today, higher education is largely time-based. The amount of time in a classroom determines the number of credits earned, which when accumulated in sufficient number results in a degree. The idea of tying education to the clock makes less sense today. We recognize that all people learn at different rates and each person learns different subjects at different rates. Accreditation efforts in the future will need to better appreciate how the competency-based education model works and how to set high standards for it.

The shift of America from an Industrial to an information economy is speeding this realization and action upon it. Industrial economies focus on establishing common processes and the American university with its course-credit system came of age during the industrial era. In contrast, information economies are concerned with outcomes. Process and time are variables. This is profound change, shifting the focus of education from teaching to learning. All of our educational institutions, pre-K through graduate school, are being pushed reluctantly in this direction by government, which is demanding specific outcomes, data, and accountability. Pre-collegiate education is adopting this approach much more quickly than higher education, which ultimately will have the option of developing its own metrics or having the metrics thrust upon it by government.

Combine this with the expansion of nontraditional providers and the diversity of their educational offerings. Students, in the course of their postsecondary lives, are likely to have had an assortment of learning experiences which may vary from a few hours to several years offered by a host of different providers. This does not translate easily into credits and degrees. Moreover, postsecondary training by employers is more likely to focus on mastery than time. As a result given society's shift from process to outcomes and the lack of common meaning associated with academic degrees beyond time-served, it would not be surprising to see degrees wither in importance in favor of competencies, detailing the skills and knowledge students have mastered. Every student would have a lifelong transcript or passport in which those competencies are officially recorded.

The big question, then, is what all this means for both higher education accreditation in general and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in particular. Past efforts to predict where higher education was headed have not been wholly successful. But changes are likely to occur. They may occur by evolution or they may be abrupt, but change is coming. And with impending change, there are several accreditation-specific suggestions the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) can take into account as it plans HEA reauthorization, including:

1. Expand the scope of institutions eligible for accreditation based more on student enrollment choices than institutional characteristics such as degree -- granting status.

2. Follow student academic careers to gage the nature of their educational progress in a system in which they may study with multiple providers.

3. Develop common standards for regional accrediting associations in order to avoid non-traditional providers shopping for the easiest possibility.

4. Develop additional categories for accreditation -- meets standards, exceeds standards, substantially exceeds standards -- in order to go beyond the floor accrediting currently establishes, to aid institutions in capacity building, and to inform consumers. Institutions should receive ratings in key areas such as academics, governance and finances as well as an overall assessment.

5. Place primary emphasis on the outcomes of postsecondary education, determining what data institutions should provide to regional accreditors and what information to the public. This could be a vehicle for providing more frequent updates to accrediting bodies and reducing the paperwork, hubbub and cost associated with accreditation.

6. Plan for an outcome or competency-based system of postsecondary education.

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