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Colleges and Universities Must Not Rest On Their Laurels

Institutions must gear up to face new challenges, such as ensuring campus security, keeping up with technology and maintaining quality.

Recent publicity on accountability suggests that the issue is a new one; however, accountability of institutions of higher education has been around, at least in the South, since the early 1900s. Ensuring that institutions offer quality educational programs and services and that they have measurable student learning outcomes have been hallmarks of accrediting bodies, both regional and specialized, since their inception. In addition to ensuring quality, an institution that successfully meets accreditation standards signals to the general public that the public’s interest is being protected, to the federal government that the institution is eligible to receive federal and state grants and loans, and to the higher education community that the institution has adequately prepared its students to meet the challenges for advanced degrees.

While graduation and job placement rates, as well as course completions and licensure rates are traditional measures of accountability, much more goes into assessing effectiveness at colleges and universities. Issues such as the quality of teaching and leadership, as well as appropriate academic and student support services, adequate financial and physical resources, and measurable student learning outcomes — or what we expect students to know when they graduate — are all components of the assessment of quality examined during the accreditation process.

Though institutions with smaller enrollments often have more difficulty meeting established standards because of limited resources (fiscal and personnel), the issues are not theirs alone. Reductions in state budgets have resulted in increases in tuition at both public and private institutions in order to ensure the maintenance of a quality environment for students.

With a significant increase in the number of minority students entering our institutions, it is becoming more difficult for minority-serving institutions to compete with traditional institutions for their enrollment because the latter often have better financial aid packages to offer and more resources. But there is also the mistaken perception that our historically Black colleges and universities (82 of which are located in the 11 states served by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges) are of lesser quality than other institutions. Given that all institutions accredited in the Southern region must undergo a rigorous reaffirmation process using the exact same principles of accreditation, it is illogical to think that one institutional type is of lesser quality than another. Make no mistake; there are major challenges to our current accreditation processes that must be addressed. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the United States retains its ability to compete globally and that those who advance this goal are educated persons with the skills and knowledge necessary to compete. More rigorous academic programs and accompanying support services are mandatory for meeting this goal.

Though our nation’s powerful global position can be attributed largely to our system of higher education, we cannot rest on our past laurels. Challenges constantly arise that threaten that position. Technological advances have made it possible to attend classes anywhere at any time rather than be relegated to a classroom. Security and quality issues have challenged institutions to put in place new safeguards that will protect the integrity of the academic enterprise while meeting students’ needs.

Much good — that has resulted from the self-examination process undertaken during accreditation — is occurring in our institutions. Unfortunately, we have not done an adequate job informing the general public of the results of that assessment. Nor have we been successful providing information about the achievements of our graduates. To ensure continued confidence in the self-regulatory process of accreditation, we must learn to toot our horns about the job we are doing preparing graduates to meet the future needs of society.

Given the ongoing focus on accountability, accrediting bodies and institutions of higher education have made changes that have yielded more information about the quality of programs and services, expectations for student performance and the success of graduates. Those efforts continue. We are not sitting on the laurels of our past successes. We know the value of education and, given the increasing costs, are making every effort to assure the public that they are getting their money’s worth.

— Dr. Belle S. Wheelan is president of the Commission on Colleges at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

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