Monday, July 20, 2009


Regional or National Accreditation?

In a comment a few days ago in response to my misgivings about a national online database of classes, someone raised the question of why we still have a regional, as opposed to national, accreditation system.

The short answer is, I have absolutely no idea. My best guess is inertia; regional accreditors emerged long ago, and gradually accrued a certain legitimacy. Now, certain regional accreditors are simply accepted as 'legitimate' – North Central, Middle States, NEASC, SACS, etc. The national accreditors that currently exist are generally held in much lower esteem throughout most of higher ed, to the extent that they get any respect at all.

(There are also plenty of well-respected accreditors within specific disciplines, like engineering or nursing. Here I'm referring to organizations that accredit entire institutions.)

Until the rise of online courses, the fact of regional separation didn't matter all that much. Credits can transfer between regions without issue, so it's not a matter of compatibility. (We've had students transfer here with credits from all around the country, and we've accepted them without hesitation.) Since each agency has its turf all to itself, there hasn't been much issue of a race to the bottom. If anything, there could be a sort of watered-down “laboratories of democracy” argument that having different agencies across the country can allow for simultaneous experiments. For example, North Central allows AQIP as an alternative to the decennial monster visit; to my knowledge, the others don't, at least for now. (I may be wrong about the Western states; Western readers are invited to correct me on that.)

Some for-profits have already run into some weird accreditation issues as they've gone national. The University of Phoenix, for example, is accredited by North Central, even though it has campuses and students in states that would normally be covered by, say, Middle States. I've heard of occasional hiccups in transfer depending on how local policies are phrased. For example, a college in Pennsylvania might balk at taking credits from an in-state U of Phoenix campus, since it only accepts in-state credits with Middle States accreditation. But this is an easy glitch to fix.

Now that the Obama administration is proposing a national clearinghouse of public domain, for-credit online courses, the question of national accreditation is starting to rear its head.

Typically, regionally accredited institutions only take transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions. That's why, for example, the state colleges and universities take our credits in transfer. (Transfer is always subject to fitting the intended program, so a student who switches majors may lose a bunch of credits, but that's another issue.) Otherwise, it would be all too easy for some fly-by-night operation to become an outsourced diploma mill under the protective cover of someone else's accreditation.

In the 'national database' model, as I understand it, no particular college would 'own' any of the courses. They'd all be in the public domain, graded by...uh...well, never mind that, but they'd be shared. Since no particular college owns the courses, it's not at all clear whose regional accreditation would attach to them. Regionally accredited colleges and universities would be asked to accept credits without regional accreditation.

Presumably, this is easily patchable with some sort of fiat. But the larger issue is whether regional, as opposed to national, accreditation still makes sense. This may be the catalyst for a serious discussion about revisiting the regional accreditation model in toto. In the age of online learning, electronic communications, and an increasing federal role in higher ed, does the regional model even make sense anymore?

While there appear to be warts of various sizes on the regional accreditors, the same question can be asked in reverse: does the federal model even make sense?

Constitutionalists will argue the federal government has no mandate to regulate higher education. Pragmatists will argue the track record of the federal government for regulation in any industry under any administration is spotty at best, and rife with corruption by any estimation.

As you describe the national database whereby no college owns any of the courses, it is difficult to visualize the government doing it better than we already do. I fear this is just another attempt to gather control by the few at the expense of the many.
If I recall what I've read around the web and been told by various administrative people, the accrediting structure stands as it does now because there's simply no way the Department of Education could handle the job (not given enough resources), they essentially subcontracted it out subject to oversight/periodic review.

And since DoEd will never be given that level of resources, I wouldn't expect that to change.
Not much hope (no pun intended) of any decent quality of courses through national accreditation. Look what's happened to K12 public schools in the last several years. The whole idea is ill-conceived and just another bandwagon like all the rest of the more recent fiascos the government has tried to take over.
IT is going to be interesting to see how it all comes out in the wash. As long as individual institutions are held accountable for "its" graduates - even if significant amounts of coursework are taken somewhere else and transferred in - they are still going to have issues with transfer credits.
Out here in California, the higher education accrediting agency is the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). The community college arm of WASC is the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJ).

Since 2003, 37% of the colleges reviewed by ACCJ have received some kind of warning. In the rest of the US, five regional accrediting agencies have sanctioned no more than six percent of the schools reviewed.

In other words, ACCJ sanctions are six times higher than anywhere else in the country.

And while "accrediting agency" sounds very high-powered and ivory towerish, the offices of ACCJ are in a strip mall storefront--an appropriate location since accreditation is certainly not free. Community colleges pay between $10 and $20K for an accredition report, and if there's a warning requiring a return site visit, costs are even higher.

If the regional agencies already have functionally equivalent systems and accept one another's decisions, then we already have a national agency, so that's it.
North Central and Southern merged a few years ago, so a national "regional" system is on its way.

Why is an increasing role of the federal government a given? Are they going to take over accrediting K-12 as well as colleges?
Is there much of a difference in the accreditation criteria between regions? I only know about the Western Association, but I'm wondering if different regions place more importance on particular issues than others.
North Central and SACS have certainly not merged. Where on Earth did you get that idea, ccphysicist?

Dunno about different standards/criteria for different regions, but I do know that there is absolutely zero consistency in recommendations made by the community college branch of the Western association.

The latest bureaucratic ferndock that has been imposed on us is Student Learning Outcomes. Some CA cc's have said they will have nothing to do with SLOs, and they've received full accreditation with no problem. Other CA cc's have been sanctioned because they haven't been paying enough attention to SLOs.

Here in the nationally accredited world, we're seeing more regionally accredited schools accept our credits. What we might see coming down the road is a set of standards from the DofEd that an accreditor must meet in order for classes to be eligible for transfer. It would make life easier for my students if that were the case.
Where did I get it?

"AdvancED is the unified organization of the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA CASI), Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI), and Commission on International and Transregional Accreditation (CITA). AdvancED is dedicated to advancing excellence in education worldwide through accreditation, research, and professional services.

"AdvancED creates the world's largest education community, representing 27,000 public and private schools and districts across the United States and in 65 countries worldwide and educating 15 million students.

"NCA CASI, SACS CASI, and CITA schools share a unified, clear and powerful accreditation process designed to help schools continuously improve."

They also run NSSE.

It's not like it is new (the consortium is three years old), but they still operate as if they were separate entities in their respective parts of the single "region" shown on the map. (For example, we only deal with SACS.)

You could almost ? view it as a "federal" approach to accreditation.
Sorry, CCphysicist, but you misunderstood. "AdvanceED" is a coalition of the accreditors for K-12 schools. They are separate and independent branches of the regional accreditors for postsecondary institutions. As for the NSSE, it's an independent entity administered by a survey center at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Thanks for the clarification.

But how long before the two commissions on colleges (now purged from the general nca and sacs home) are run the same way? These two

have a lot in common if you overlook the choice of the middle word in QIP and QEP. Enhance -vs- Improve? Not a lot to merge there.
All of the regional accreditors have a lot in common, but they also have their own (well-compensated) administrations, a history of guarding their turf rather jealously, and some very different operating practices. (SACS and HLC, the two that you cite, are miles apart in terms of general orientation toward accreditation. HLC is viewed as the lenient, fuzzy one while SACS is seen as the head-counting authoritarian.)

A merger might make sense, but the regionals are much more likely to fight it than to initiate it.
Debates about regional or national accreditation has been tackled so many times. I think comments are answers on their own way.

regional accreditation
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