An Official in Obama’s Education Dept. Explains Her Move to Lead an Accreditor

The Chronicle of Higher Education

An Official in Obama’s Education Dept. Explains Her Move to Lead an Accreditor

OCTOBER 24, 2017
Jamienne Studley, an Obama-era Education Dept. official, will become president of a regional accreditor, the Western Association of Colleges and Schools’ commission on colleges, in January.

As deputy under secretary at the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, Jamienne S. Studley played a key role in pushing for greater accountability by both colleges and accreditors — the private agencies charged with ensuring that colleges seeking federal student aid meet standards of academic quality. Now Ms. Studley will assume a very different role: leading one of those accreditors.In January, Ms. Studley will become president of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, formerly known as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, one of the nation’s seven regional accrediting agencies. The commission accredits some 200 colleges in California, Hawaii, and the U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean. Ms. Studley will succeed Mary Ellen Petrisko, who has led the commission since 2013.

In addition to her post at the department, Ms. Studley has experience overseeing accreditation: She led the federal advisory panel that recommends whether the U.S. government will approve individual accreditors as gatekeepers of financial aid.

Ms. Studley will join another Obama-era Education Department official in moving to the higher-education sector. Ted Mitchell, who served as under secretary, took over this past summer as president of the American Council on Education.

In an interview on Tuesday with The Chronicle, Ms. Studley discussed her new role. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Why did you want to take this job?

A. WASC has an outstanding, forward-looking reputation and practice. But the deciding factor was really the student focus. The commission and I were so aligned in understanding that that’s the beginning of the conversation and that everything rotates around that.

When I think about myself and a match for what I wanted to do, I’m a teacher, a lawyer, a policy advocate, a regulator, a convener, coalition builder, process improver, nonprofit manager, career adviser, and conference planner, and this is the rare role that gives me a chance to do all of them in service of the area that I’ve focused on: students in higher education.

Q. When you worked at the Education Department, you pushed for much greater accountability by both colleges and accreditors. Now that you will be leading an accrediting agency, what kinds of major changes do you think are possible for the accreditation process to further that accountability?

A. Once I take the helm, in January, I’ll look forward to talking about that. I certainly will be asking the same kinds of questions, in many cases: What can agencies do to accomplish those purposes and improve outcomes of all kinds, tangible and intangible? My firm belief is to take the initiative ourselves and step up to do it in ways that play to our responsibilities and strengths and can lead the way, period.

Q. Is federal overreach in accreditation a concern that needs to be addressed?A. The best way to assure that we achieve the accountability and protections for students and taxpayers for which we are responsible — and to do it in a way that works for schools — is for us to identify, design and improve, and ensure that we have confidence in the collective judgments of accreditation.

Q. What are some changes you would like to see if Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act?

A. It’s likely I’ll have some time to work with the WASC commission and members and others in this field, accreditors but also advocates for students and policy makers, to develop those answers. But in the meantime, accreditation can be working to act where it already has the ability and authority, and to test and practice some of the ideas that have come up so that we can move as far and as fast as possible in areas that don’t require statutory change.

A focus on outcomes is a good way to move toward reducing the specific and sometimes quite burdensome input regulation that is the historical way that we have done accreditation. And there’s a window to look at how a greater focus on outcomes can allow Congress confidently to let go of the input protections.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at

Clarification (10/25/2017, 4:41 p.m.): This article misstated the accreditor’s name, which recently changed. It is now called the WASC Senior College and University Commission, and was formerly known as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities. The article has been updated to reflect this clarification.