Monday, January 14, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Is Re-Accreditation Worth It?

A new correspondent writes (edited for length and anonymity):

[Her daughter] recently learned that the awesome, charismatic, incredible, passionate department head who always teaches [difficult subject] and whose name has been listed all along as scheduled to instruct both terms of the class will not actually be teaching the second term.

No official announcement has been made yet, and her name is still listed on the class schedule, but [the student] recently ran into an adjunct in the hall who told her, "You're stuck with me next term. Dr. X will not be teaching the class. She's too busy dealing with all the accreditation paperwork to teach next term..."

The bottom line: what's the cost-benefit of the re-accreditation process? I'd like to know: does all this paperwork actually improve the quality of education?

I'll give a quick sense of what it looks like from where I sit, and leave it to my wise and worldly readers to indicate how it plays out where they are.

In the U.S., accreditation comes in several flavors, each with its own purpose.. (I'll leave it to readers in other countries to explain how it works there, since I honestly don't know.)

What people usually mean when they talk about accreditation (and is probably the case here) is regional accreditation for an entire institution. For example, the University of Michigan is accredited by the North Central Association. Different parts of the country have their own accrediting agencies, but the basic idea behind each one is the same: to certify that the institution does what it says it does. It's supposed to ensure the public that the college or university in question has the resources (both fiscal and human) to do its job, that it's organized in a way that allows it to do its job, and (more recently) that it's committed to continuous improvement in how it does its job. Whatever its mission, you should be reasonably sure that an accredited college isn't a fraudulent and/or fly-by-night operation.

(I say “whatever its mission” because different institutions have different jobs. A research university has a different mission than does a community college, which in turn has a different mission than a four-year college with a strong religious affiliation or a proprietary college with an occupational orientation. You wouldn't judge one by the mission of the others.)

Accrediting agencies are nonprofit associations of colleges and universities. They usually operate by doing site visits, in which faculty and administrators from 'peer' institutions visit the one that's up for renewal. In preparation for the visit, the college typically does a 'self-study,' for which the association provides questions and a framework. My guess is that the professor you're missing is involved in the self-study, which can be quite time-consuming. In my faculty days at Proprietary U, I wrote the first draft of the self-study for my campus, and it was a surprisingly massive and difficult job.

(Some regions have started moving away from the Big Study every five or ten years in favor of smaller reports on an annual basis, which they call AQIP. I haven't seen that up close, so I really can't speak to it. Anyone who can is invited to comment.)

Part of the unspoken agenda of the regional accrediting agencies is to prevent heavy-handed government control of higher education. The idea is that if we can show that we, as a sector, do a reasonable job of policing ourselves, then the government won't step in and do it for us. (Can you imagine if a given administration were to promulgate national guidelines for the teaching of Intro to American Government? Yikes!)

Regional accreditation is terribly important for a college, since its eligibility for most public financial aid (both state and federal) is dependent on its continuing accreditation. In practice, the more economically-marginal schools rely pretty heavily, both directly and indirectly, on financial aid, so a loss of accreditation could be fatal. A loss of accreditation, while rare, should usually be taken as a sign that something has gone horribly wrong. (To be fair, there are schools, such as Bob Jones University, that have eschewed accreditation altogether to pursue their own idiosyncratic paths.)

Some professions have program-specific accreditations, such as in Nursing, where a given field has set up its own guidelines, criteria, and network of site visits. In those cases, you're usually looking only at a specific department or program, rather than the entire college. There are also 'national' accrediting agencies, which generally don't carry the weight of the regional ones. In my observation, they're usually specific to the for-profit sector, and widely distrusted. Some for-profits – the University of Phoenix and DeVry leap to mind – have actually attained regional accreditation, so it can be done.

Your question about improving the quality of education is a tricky one. Historically, accreditation was about counting inputs – how many books in the library, how large the endowment, how many faculty with doctorates, etc. -- and simply assuming that high numbers in those categories resulted somehow in quality education. Over the last decade or so – it may be longer, I really don't know – the agencies have started pushing colleges to develop meaningful 'outcomes assessment,' to see if those inputs are actually producing the desired outputs. Outcomes assessment is a discussion or two in itself, but I'll say that the idea behind it is to get colleges to commit to continuous improvement by providing them internal, ongoing feedback on how well students are learning what they're supposed to learn. It differs from grading to the extent that grading is intended to reflect individual student performance, whereas outcomes assessment is intended to reflect the performance of a given curriculum.

I'm a bit skeptical that accreditation actually ensures quality education. What it does do is ensure that you aren't dealing with a fly-by-night storefront operation, and that the college in question is capable of providing the education it claims it provides. (Whether that actually happens is another question.) More recently, it also indicates that the college is committed to some form of continuous improvement, though that can mean a lot of things. It's a minimum, rather than a guarantee. But it's a minimum that most colleges couldn't forego without serious financial and enrollment consequences.

Good luck with the Spring class!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

When one is on a reaccreditation committee, slogging through the gathering and presentation of material that must be gathered and presented but that by any standard is trivial in the extreme, it's hard to remember that it's being done to 1) keep the feds off our backs and 2) to offer a very minimal guarantee of quality. And even harder to convince oneself that these are worthy reasons.

To motivate oneself during that tedious slog, one has to be very grown-up indeed, very willing to repeat endlessly to oneself, 'Well, irrational and indirect and time-consuming as it is, this is the way the world works and the results aren't totally useless. Right? Right?"

If only the administrators I deal with were a little more cynical and didn't present this busywork as a frippin learning opportunity. Do I look like a civilian, a businessman at a Rotary lunch?

I'll do what I have to do out of self-preservation, but don't try to con me, admins! Don't try to convince me I'm doing something intrinsically useful--the value is extrinsic; it's long-term and big-picture, but the studies themselves are just dust-gatherers.

Perhaps my recent experience and student perspective biases me, but accreditation seems to be just another tool that large instutional structures can hide behind to maintain the status quo. I would agree that it doesn't necessarily gurantee quality education, rather it forces an institution to put certain infrastructure and resources in place, thus increasing the likelihood that they are able to deliver quality (whatever that means).

The competent management of resources is another question altogether and fly-by-nights do not have a monopoly on organizational dysfunction or incompetence. Unfortunately, it is next to impossible for constituencies of so-called reputable schools to get either the school or an outside entity to reexamine processes or curricula that don't work well, at all or as marketed (I guess that's the "keeping the 'state" off your back part", which seems to work real well). However, for the kind of money most people are likely to spend obtaining a degree, when it goes horribly wrong, they're really just SOL.
It's hard to explain accreditation as a "keep the feds off our back" approach when accreditation began long before the current accountability talk. Higher ed history is not my specialty, but I suspect the picture is much more complicated.
As a faculty member who's been involved in both North Central re-accreditation and NCATE (teacher ed) re-accreditation, I have seen it so overwhelm faculty that it prevents them from doing the other parts of their job while it is going on. Depending on how often that is determines whether it is a good or bad thing.

The most challenging aspect was the resentment of other faculty who didn't want anything to do with it toward those who believed it was part of what they had to do - esp. to keep a particular program viable in the age of budget cuts. There are still too many within higher education (primarily faculty) who think, "I have tenure, I know what I need to do" without understanding we do need to at least keep some binoculars handy to keep an eye on what is going on in the rest of the world - esp. the world we are preparing students to enter that is much different than the world in which we were students.

Sherm makes an excellent point about accountability and it would be interesting if another read can place current events within the historical framework for us.

There's also another interesting point - in some cases (and definitely not in others), having Grad Student or Adjunct X teach a course gets more actual teaching done than is automatically done by a group of professors - esp. those who see teaching as the least of their responsibilities. As usual, a whole multitude of issues in the question asked . . .
I've been through two reaffirmations in the last 3 years (two different schools). For the first one, I was on the Reaffirmation Steering Committee(it's NOT re-accreditation, that phrase implies you lost accreditation and are regaining it); at the second I was Johnny-come-lately. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) recently revamped their reaffirmation of accreditation process to include a planning tool caleed the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP).

The history in a nutshell- 30 years ago someone asked the question, "How do you KNOW your doing what you say you're doing? Where are the numbers?" so all the instituions created "Institutional Research" offices that collected said data. Time passed. 15 years later, another someone asked, "You've been collecting this data for almost 20 years. What are you doing with it?" Now each instituion must come up with a plan for improving an area (at least one, but you can do more) that the data that has been collected indicates has room for improvment. One important caveat- it must center on student learning outcomes.

Good grief. I re-read my above comments three times before I posted it and it still has more mis-spellings than I can to count.

Please see Friday's comments about non-morning person-ness and multiply by 3 for Mondays.

I would say that accreditation, at the college level (and at my college in particular), is largely defeated as a useful tool by the total lack of interest faculty have in 1) documenting learning in their classroom and 2) getting peer feedback. Both are seen as useless exercises and at my school and the minimum effort is put into doing just enough to keep accreditors off our backs. Part of it is also the accreditors fault - they place too much emphasis on the process of documenting an outcome and not enough on actually looking at those outcomes. And they are really interested in things that seem trivial to me – one of their recommendations was that we include a diversity course in our gen ed curriculum – at a school that hasn’t had a racial majority for 15 years that seemed dumb – our students get exposed to “diversity” coming to class everyday.

In the national accreditation for my own department level program I connected with two wonderful people who have helped us transform what we are doing. However, having talked to other people, my positive experience was due to the attitude of the people who came to my site - others have be stuck with bean counters (how many objectives do you have per course and are there enough of them at level six of Bloom's taxonomy? etc.) That approach is not helpful, but it’s an easy way to feel as though you’ve done due diligence and assessed a program.
An exception to " 'national' accrediting agencies ... generally don't carry the weight of the regional ones" guideline is case(s?) of specific program accreditation. In my STEM field, the national accreditation board (which accredits individual degree programs) sets standards that are more stringent and topical than the regional accreditation board that accredits the entire university. There are a few important aspects about receiving this accreditation:

* it provides internal leverage about why certain resources (equipment, # of faculty, etc.) need to be provided to an individual department, i.e. in order to meet the local implementation of the nationwide standard sufficiently well

* it imposes a period of self-reflection about our teaching that we should be doing anyway, as well as an opportunity for outsider comments that we must address

* it certifies to potential students that the program offering the STEM degree they will ultimately receive has been thoroughly vetted by the accreditation board and thus meets some minimal standard. I recommend that all potential students considering a STEM discipline inquire if their terminal degree will be from a program that has obtained the appropriate certification.

Does it take a lot of time to receive accreditation renewal? (We use a different term than anon C1.) Sure. The cost of not doing it, though, is too much.
The STEM national accreditation referred to above would be for something like Engineering (ABET accredited). Physics programs are not separately accredited, but our quality impacts on ABET's view of the students produced by that college. By the way, in that case it has a student impact as well. You cannot become a licensed PE without graduating from an accredited program.

Reaffirmation is a big deal, and a big job. We had one faculty member on it full time for two years, and several others across the college who had significant release time (half load) for part of that period. Given the response, we overdid it, but we learned a lot about the institution in the process. The new "outcomes" emphasis exposed some data that we needed to learn from and work on.

And now we approach the midway point where we start to look at those outcomes again. For SACS, at least, the process is now more continuous and integrated into the college than it used to be.

As for what it tells you? Well, I agree completely with Ivory that they put "too much emphasis on the process of documenting an outcome and not enough on actually looking at those outcomes". You can probably have all the paperwork in order but never enforce any prerequisites or tolerate a C for attendance with zero learning and still stay accredited. The reason is that a student who does what they are supposed to do will turn out fine and get a great education, which is what is being documented. One hopes that the self-study might turn up the problem with the others, but it doesn't have to.
AQIP (Academic Quality Improvement Project) is an application of TQM (Total Quality Management) to higher ed. The point is for an institution to establish a set of targets for itself and them to move continuously toward those targets. It has some virtues, compared with traditional accreditation standards and procedures, but also some disadvantages.

From my perspective, traditional accreditation standards have been focused on mission statements and resources, and have tended to short-change assessment of processes and outcomes. My experience so far with AQIP is that it focuses significantly on mission and process (and, to a greater extent that traditional accreditation, outcomes), but tends to overlook resources (and outcomes still receive relatively little attention.

AQIP, in other words, changes the balance of the accrediting agency's attention, but still misses some things. AQIP is also an ongoing commitment, so it requires constant attention by the institution. (I might note that AACSB, the business school accreditor, is also moving toward a continuous process.) This will, I think, if it does anything, lead to institutions devoting even more time, energy, and resources to accreditation.

Oh. And we haven't, institutionally, been blessed with additional resources as we've become involved in AQIP. And I don't see our faculty as a whole being any more involvedin the AQIP process than we were in the traditional accreditation process. Now, we're uninvolved with it all the time instead of just uninvolved in the 2 years our of 10 in which we worked toward reaffirmation of our accreditation.
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