A Tipping Point for Accreditors

Inside Higher Ed

By Andrew Kreighbaum

Accreditors provide the stamp of approval for colleges and universities in the U.S. Without their recognition, those institutions can’t keep access to federal student aid. So even though accreditors are essentially membership organizations that operate with limited transparency, they are a key part of the “triad” of higher ed regulators, along with states and the federal government.

Traditionally, they’ve focused on questions of academic quality at colleges. But in recent years with the cost of college and growing student loan debt increasing concerns, they’ve come under pressure from critics, including federal lawmakers, who say they should do more to hold the poorest-performing institutions accountable.

That thinking led the Obama administration to take the unprecedented step of pulling federal recognitionfrom the accreditor that oversaw the now defunct for-profit chains Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech. And while the Trump administration has signaled a more sympathetic attitude toward accreditors, consumer advocates and some lawmakers continue to demand they better fulfill their watchdog role. Recently, that’s included new pressure to scrutinize proposals from for-profit colleges to reclassify as nonprofits.

Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press), a new book of essays co-edited by Susan Phillips, a professor of educational leadership and policy and of counseling psychology at the University at Albany, and Kevin Kinser, the head of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University, explores the new pressures on accreditors and what role they should be expected to play in holding colleges accountable. Phillips and Kinser answered questions via email about how issues involving accreditation have come to the forefront of higher ed.

Q: You write that the role of accreditors in higher ed has been debated for close to a century. What’s new about the latest controversies over the role of these organizations and how is the conversation being shaped by concerns over student loan debt and job outcomes for college graduates?

A: Yes, debates about accreditation are perennial. But in the past concerns about accreditation were mostly “inside baseball” — conversations about obscure points comprehensible only those immersed in the weeds of accreditation policy. Now, however, we see accreditation wrapped up in a perfect storm of issues that go to the heart of the higher education enterprise, starting with the emergence of new providers and alternative delivery mechanisms, adding in the recent scandals in the for-profit sector and the increasing focus on consumer protection for students. Long-term trends in higher education finance also play a part, with a reduction in public subsidies and increase in student debt transferring more responsibility and risk to students.

Taken together, this perfect storm of issues places accreditation on the front burner unlike any time since it first took on a major public policy role after World War II. There are now issues on the table that everyone can relate to. And they raise questions from stakeholders ranging from students to parents to lawmakers. How much higher ed do we want to pay for? Is it a good investment? Will graduates get good jobs? Will taxpayer dollars be safe? Is accreditation working as a guarantor of quality? Can it identify bad actors and take action against them? Does it have too much authority, or not enough?

Q: How have accreditors traditionally pushed for improvement at colleges and how has that work changed in response to demands for a bigger focus on student outcomes?

A: As you know, improvement has long been a sine qua non goal of accreditation — institutions strive to do better, and the self-study and peer-review process helps them do that. And, over the last two decades, there has been an significant push for institutions to assess (and improve) student learning outcomes. Now, however, the outcomes that are under discussion are less about student learning, per se. Now, they are more about things like graduation and default rates, or postgraduation employment, and are applied in an evaluative and punitive manner. Poorer outcomes are now seen more as a sign of failure than as a baseline from which the institution should improve. In responding to these kinds of outcome accountability metrics, accreditors vary considerably: some point out that they have already been using such postgraduation indicators for years, while others try to place performance on those metrics in the larger context of what they know about a given institution, and yet others — the regionals, in particular — have begun to systematically study what level and combination of those metrics should serve as a trigger for closer review.

Q: Many accreditors have complained about new responsibilities being foisted upon them that are not part of their core mission. The Trump administration appears to agree with many of those complaints. If accreditors are not the right entities to handle that oversight of colleges, who is?

A: There are many points made in the book that echo these concerns and questions! The system of oversight of U.S. higher education has traditionally been framed as threefold, referred to as the “triad.” In the triad — at least in theory — the federal government watches over issues of financial support and access, the states attend to matters of consumer protection, and accreditors guard the educational quality. This three-legged stool, however turns out to be quite wobbly, with the federal leg requiring accreditation agencies to handle an increasing number of responsibilities and — given that states vary widely in their interest and capacity — accreditors are also pressured to pick up many consumer protection functions as well.

Although this has made for a larger (some would say too large) role for accreditors, we offer a paraphrase of Churchill: U.S. accreditation as it exists now is the worst form of oversight in higher education, except for anything else we have come up with. But if not this, then what? It would take a massive government bureaucracy to do what accreditation does now. As [Education Secretary Betsy] DeVos takes on this challenge, she seems to be echoing one theme from our book: accreditation has taken on many responsibilities that may not make sense. The question, however, that we need to consider is the extent of our willingness to take the risks that go with reducing oversight — and the recognition that the students are ultimately the ones who face the consequences of that risk taking.

Q: The Obama administration in 2016 withdrew federal recognition from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools after the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and ITT Tech. But DeVos is considering right now whether to reinstate ACICS. How has the fight over the survival of that accreditor reflected the broader debate discussed in this collection?

A: The fight over the fate of ACICS has many faces: its survival can be seen as a victory — or at least a vote of confidence — in the for-profit sector, or, alternately, as an appropriate retraction of a governmental overreach, and a movement toward a time of fewer regulations that many institutions and accreditors seek. In turn, the demise of ACICS can be seen as a triumph of consumer protection interests, or as a blow to the opportunities of the numerous students served in the career pursuits of the institutions overseen by ACICS. And, further, there are likely larger political issues, including prioritizing deregulation across the federal government, that have little to do with the role of accreditation in higher education. These many faces are very much reflected in the diverse — and often disagreeing — perspectives that we sought to bring together in our book. The fate of ACICS is a great example of an issue that might seem self-evident from one perspective, and yet have many other possible interpretations and unforeseen consequences that would be best considered before making what might seem a simple decision.

Q: DeVos wants to rethink the role of accreditors through an upcoming negotiated rule-making process. The various contributors to this collection illustrate many starkly different positions from many corners of higher ed. How do you expect that rule-making process to shape the demands on these organizations?

A: Well, we’d be hesitant to make any kind of solid prediction about what will certainly be a complex and political process! That said, in our analysis of the many different legitimate perspectives, we identified five critical issues that are important to consider in any discussion of accreditation reform. The first is that simple solutions are very tough to imagine as workable reforms. Indeed, we liken this to a game of Jenga — in which players take turns removing one block at a time from a tall tower. The tower quickly, and inevitably, becomes unstable as individual blocks are removed and replaced.

The second issue is that defining “quality” is not so easy. Reaching agreement about what counts as quality, and how one measures it will be an inherently problematic element of reform. Third, accreditation serves many masters with different goals, resulting in multiple and often contradictory missions. Although quality improvement, quality assurance and consumer protection might seem like similar missions, the reform process will need to navigate a path through very different sets of stakeholders, methods and goals.

Fourth, in an age of information, it is easy to assert that more is better. However, while data can be useful and transparency can be valuable, there are also real questions about the accuracy, relevance and use of information generated from the accreditation process.

Finally, finding the right place for innovation in higher education is essential, but [one] must consider a process that recognizes that new is not always better. Further, while innovation is a logical outcome of an improvement mission, a greater speed of change will inevitably call for tolerance for a greater risk of failure.

Q: This administration is clearly more open to the concerns of accreditors. But what do they risk in the future if they don’t take steps now to placate their biggest critics?

A: It would probably be smart to view the administration’s sympathy with the concerns of accreditors as being a reflection of its commitment to deregulation. Indeed, moving toward less regulation would seem like common ground for the administration, accreditors, institutions and policy makers, where the weight and intrusion of the regulatory hand in the affairs of higher education is a significant criticism. Further, there are many points where those thinking about deregulation in accreditation need to take a close look and ask, “Does this make sense?” Much of what accreditation is being asked to do in the name of Title IV access may not stand up under that scrutiny.

That said, like most issues raised in our book, there are more facets to the puzzle: in this case, one also needs to consider that less regulation invariably means taking on greater risk, and in the case of quality in higher education, the student is where that risk most likely falls. This, in turn, leads us back to another quarter of criticism about accreditors — that they are not sufficiently protective of consumers. With the triple expectation that accreditors assure compliance, prompt improvement and protect consumers, a shift in one area (say, regulatory compliance) likely just increases the expectations in another (say, consumer protection). The challenge, really, is to figure out ways to be responsive to each of those three expectations.