Accreditation on the Edge

No one is happy with accreditation: Institutions feel burdened, policymakers are frustrated, consumers are unprotected, employer needs are unmet, and accreditors are under fire. Because of this, there is no shortage of recommendations for how to get it right. And, with the reauthorization of the Higher Ed Act coming up in Congress, there’s the perfect opportunity to reform accreditation on a system-wide scale.

With this as a point of departure – agreement that things need to change, a lot of possible changes being proposed, and a timely policy vehicle to implement selected changes – it would seem a simple task to map a better path forward. However, with over $120 billion in federal funds at stake annually, it turns out that accreditation reform is more challenging than meets the eye. Indeed, even while most agree that accreditation needs reform, there are many valid perspectives – and little agreement – on what is wrong and how to fix it. Instead of consensus, we see a complex and contested space in which some view accreditation as an invaluable resource to ensure the quality of the system, and others look at it as a barrier to needed reform.

Furthermore, past reform efforts – well-intended fixes instituted for an issue here or a problem there – have in many cases contributed to the current unsatisfactory state of affairs. Accreditation reform is like the 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 blocks are removed and replaced. Even though the leading voices and policymakers on accreditation reform are all addressing the same problems, topics, and dilemmas, the recommendations they propose are akin to removing one block here, and replacing another block there, further destabilizing the edifice. Taken singly, these recommendations may make sense. But collectively they lead to a result that is unsustainable, creating problems that are only realized later on.

In Accreditation on the Edge, we bring together the many and often competing recommendations to show the challenges, tensions, and debates that are essential information and context for those seeking to shape the future course of accreditation. Drawing on the perspectives of accreditors, institutions, policymakers, and consumers, we illustrate how and why accreditation is on the edge. It is on the edge of a policy precipice, as the needs of the higher education system and the interests of the growing number of stakeholders may well outstrip its ability to perform. And, it is on the cutting edge of the transformation of higher education as it has the potential to take on the central questions of equity and access and innovation facing higher education today. Our conclusions reflect not what to fix, but rather what questions need to be addressed for a sustainable reform and improvement in how we assure quality in higher education.

Susan D. Phillips is a professor of educational leadership and policy and of counseling psychology at the University at Albany. Previously she led the American Psychological Association Committee on Accreditation and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. Kevin Kinser is a professor of and the head of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University, where he is also a senior scientist at the Center for the Study of Higher Education. Together, Susan D. Phillips and Kevin Kinser are the editors of Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education.