Accreditation: What is the Department of Education thinking?

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Jul 18, 2018

The Department of Education recently announced that it will be taking a fresh look at accreditation. Such a review is sorely needed: as Michael Horn and I argue in a new paper that was published originally as a chapter in the book Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education, accreditation as it currently stands is a major obstacle to developing innovative programs that can improve access, affordability, and workforce alignment in higher education.

At the center of the Department’s efforts to rethink accreditation is recent hire Diane Auer Jones, who has specialized in a range of issues including accreditation, Career and Technical Education (CTE), and apprenticeships. Auer Jones’ track record should be encouraging to anyone interested in loosening the grip accreditation holds on innovation, without losing sight of student outcomes.

Move away from inputs

In a 2015 paper for AEI, Auer Jones discussed the regulatory constraints that limit CTE programs at community colleges. She noted that regional accreditors have strict input-driven standards for faculty credentials, which often are difficult or impossible for CTE programs to meet. She argued that this pushes community colleges to offer CTE programs on a non-degree basis, in order to avoid violating accreditation standards—but that this approach risks disadvantaging students.

“…students in noncredit courses are unlikely to have access to federal student aid, which may prevent them from enrolling or force them to rely on more expensive forms of credit, such as credit cards or payday loans. Also, since noncredit courses do not count toward a degree, students who complete them may be at a tremendous disadvantage if they later seek a more traditional college credential. Thus, while community colleges typically pursue regional accreditation to support their transfer mission, this could interfere with their ability to sustain or expand their efforts to meet vocational education needs. While the noncredit side of the institutional house provides the relief valve for institutions that want to keep both their accreditors and employers happy, students may be on the losing end of such a compromise.”

Auer Jones’ observation gets at the heart of the dire consequences of arcane accreditation regimes. Accreditation—the critical system for assessing whether institutions qualify for federal financial aid—is too focused on inputs, such as faculty degrees and shared governance, and pays far too little attention to outcomes, such as graduation rates, job placement rates, and wage growth. This input-driven approach results in higher costs, as schools add complexity and features in order to meet accreditation standards. It limits innovation, and as Auer Jones points out, pushes many of the students who most need support out of the system altogether. But, unfortunately, our current approach to quality assurance in higher education doesn’t protect students from enrolling in schools with low completion rates and weak return on investment.

Move toward outcomes—carefully

Accreditors should be encouraged to focus primarily on whether institutions are creating value for students. Schools that do should be given wide latitude in how they do so. Institutions that do not create value for students should be heavily scrutinized.

Auer Jones has said as much. In a 2017 piece for the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), she noted that a focus on outcomes is necessary—but outcomes measures need to address the quality of schools, not just their students. She wrote, “Our current outcomes measures tell us much more about the institution’s admissions criteria than they do about what happens once a student enrolls.”

She suggested that accreditors adopt risk-adjusted outcome measures, similar to those that are prevalent in the healthcare industry, in order to account for differences in each student that influence educational outcomes. Auer Jones argues that “Risk-adjusted outcomes can tell us a great deal about the value added an institution provides, and it may be the most effective way to achieve our public policy goals of expanding access and reducing college costs. After all, the pressure on institutions to become more selective has widened the opportunity gap and fueled the amenities arms race that has contributed to soaring college costs.”

New approaches to accreditation

Auer Jones has her work cut out for her. If we want the education system to look different—more affordable and more likely to yield employment outcomes—we’ll need to see more than just tweaks to accreditation policy. The Department’s thinking on accreditation also needs to take into account the growing list of alternatives to traditional higher education. Put differently, we’ll need both innovative delivery models and innovative quality assurance models.

In the long run, students will benefit most if we grow a wholly new quality assurance and funding structure that moves away from a byzantine regulatory system that has buoyed high fixed-cost business models across higher education. Indeed, simply making existing accreditors behave better will not fundamentally eliminate inefficiencies and warped incentives in the current higher education system. Auer Jones is on the right track, focusing on moving away from inputs and toward a smart, outcome-driven system of quality assurance.

Alana leads the Institute’s higher education research and works to find solutions for a more affordable system that better serves both students and employers. In this role, Alana analyzes disruptive forces changing the higher education landscape.