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.