Re-evaluating Higher Education Evaluation
by Jean Avnet Morse
MSCHE Executive Director
The Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education is considering proposals for radical reform of the accreditation system that has maintained and improved our excellent higher education system for over 80 years. Possible recommendations include establishing a new federal agency to assure the quality of higher education.
When headlines scream about poor test scores of college graduates, and employers demand different skills for employment, it is tempting to look for simplistic solutions that play well politically and for an easy target to scapegoat. It is also tempting to overlook reforms that are already underway but that will require some time to produce results. And it is just as tempting to ignore important social tensions such as that between giving all types of students the opportunity to enter college while also demanding top skills from all graduates.
Of course the higher education community should continue to challenge itself to improve its quality assurance system, and many suggestions made to the Commission should be pursued. But reaching for the “easy” solutions might undermine some basic American values served by accreditation.
Our system is based on a public/private partnership. Federal funding is conditioned on accreditation by non-governmental accreditors that are regulated by the U.S. Department of Education. The Department requires consideration of areas such as student success, graduation rates, job placement, and admissions policies. Accreditors create and apply standards to colleges and universities using processes that emphasize improvement as well as compliance, that consider each college’s unique combination of programs and students, and that use well-informed professionals from other colleges to visit and evaluate each college. Thousands of hours by thousands of experts are devoted every year to these processes—at no expense to taxpayers.
Accrediting associations such as the Middle States Commission on Higher Education host visitors from around the world who ask how the United States has succeeded in reviewing the quality of so many different kinds of colleges and universities - private and public, conservative and liberal, community colleges and large research universities, small and large—serving so many different kinds of students. The answer is that, unlike most other countries, we do not have a central governmental agency that oversees a largely public higher education system. Our non-governmental tailors its review to each institution. For example, we do not expect high graduation rates from community colleges whose purpose includes serving students whose goals do not include a college degree.
Many of the criticisms leveled against accreditors result from lack of information. Accreditors across the country have revised their standards over the last few years to require solid, compelling evidence of student learning as the primary qualification for accreditation. Middle States and others set minimum requirements for important skills such as written and oral communication, math, and critical thinking, but we expect more. We expect fulfillment of the college’s promises to its students. Many community college graduates need specific job skills; college graduates who move on to graduate study need sophisticated research skills. We expect all colleges to help students fulfill their needs and to show systematically and clearly that students do indeed graduate with whatever the college promises.
The results of recent changes implemented by accreditors may not be obvious until current and future students graduate. Critics overlook the thorough grass-roots process that accreditation processes require on each campus to create the complicated changes needed to improve student learning. The challenge is to create goals that are clear to students and the public, programs and teaching strategies that help students achieve those goals, and measures of success that do not compress the variety of our students and colleges. None of this can be achieved quickly or easily.
If we judged all colleges using the same simple rating scale, everyone would understand the results, but the results would not promote the diversity and improvement that is the hallmark of our current accreditation system. They would also not create an ongoing system of change and improvement, with continuous in-depth monitoring of troubled institutions.
Accreditation should change and improve, as should all processes. Realistic suggestions from the Commission are welcomed. For example, suggestions that accreditors improve the information the public receives might be addressed by using new disclosure models. Middle States has already introduced standardized formats for reports of visiting evaluation teams as part of a process to create such a model. Suggestions that the public could be involved more actively could be addressed by adding students and others to evaluation teams – a simple modification of existing practice.
Far from being reluctant to change or be responsive to societal needs, accreditors are already addressing a number of issues and challenges in addition to those raised by the federal Commission. Current issues include those created by online courses and degree programs, by the increased use of the doctorate in the professions, by the issuance of “certificates” instead of degrees, and by the globalization of higher education. Several accreditors are working to address the complexity of the accreditation process by creating more streamlined procedures to review colleges.
And, of course, our most important initiative is implement our new requirements for more thorough measurement of essential skills and attention to academic rigor and standards.
The issue is not whether further changes should be made – it is whether changes that relate to higher education should be imposed externally by non-educators. Accreditors have a proven record of major reforms, and it has built-in processes to initiate and accomplish new reforms. Important changes can be implemented within the current system.
I welcome the Commission’s call to excellence. Middle States and others hope to work co-operatively with the Commission towards our shared goals and to depart from the current attack and defend process that garners headlines without promoting change.
But radical intervention is not needed and indeed threatens what we have achieved.
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is the regional institutional accreditor for 522 colleges and universities in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and several overseas locations.