Monday, July 20, 2009
Regional or National Accreditation?
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?
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.
And since DoEd will never be given that level of resources, I wouldn't expect that to change.
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.
Why is an increasing role of the federal government a given? Are they going to take over accrediting K-12 as well as colleges?
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.
"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.
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.
A merger might make sense, but the regionals are much more likely to fight it than to initiate it.