Washington — Accreditors need to make their actions more transparent and better define their roles and responsibilities as assurers of quality in order to gain the public trust.
That was one of the major takeaways from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation 2016 Summer Workshop held here recently.
While the goals of transparency and clarity around the mission of accreditors were lauded, they also seemed elusive, and the conversation sometimes felt—as it has in the past—as if those involved hadn’t quite fully figured out how to achieve those goals.
At the same time, there was also a sense that accreditors will not be able to continue to operate in obscurity, particularly as more situations come to light where institutions collapse or students leave programs laden with debt and little prospects for employment in the field in which they were educated.
In such situations, accreditors will be asked why they signed off on an institution or program that has regularly failed to successfully launch students into their careers, several attendees and speakers said.
“People see accreditors as some level of quality assurance, that it means some type of quality bar,” said James Kvaal, former deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama and currently a Towsley Foundation Policymaker in Residence at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
“In part that means that students will get what they expect they’re paying for out of that program,” Kvaal said. “If student goals for that program are partly economic, I think that is part of the expectation.”
Kvaal said, if students are going to occupational training programs but not finding jobs or to law schools and not becoming attorneys, that would raise questions about whether the appropriate learning outcomes have occurred at their respective schools.
Susan Phillips, chair of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity at the U.S. Department of Education, said trust is hard to come by and can be undermined further when an accredited institution’s program fails to deliver.
“The premise of we are the quality assurance and what we say is good, believe us when we say this is good, and somebody else says, ‘If you’re the quality assurance body, then why did this happen?’” Phillips said, referring to a recent case but purposefully not naming the institution in question, even though what comes to mind for many is the recent collapse of Corinthian Colleges.
“When that moment occurred, whatever that moment was, there became a huge crisis of trust,” Phillips said.
“Then there’s the finger-pointing,” Phillips said. “But the response of ‘trust me’ doesn’t get there when a rift like that occurs. The response of ‘well, accreditation is a process,’ just makes people’s eyes glaze over. Or pointing people to a set of standards doesn’t restore the trust.
“So what would raise confidence?” Phillips asked. “Certainly, ‘trust us’ is not it. Think of what works when you have a trust breach. Is there a ‘trust but verify’ strategy? We have to think about what would make me as an accreditor more transparent.”
Part of the problem, Phillips said, is that, in accreditation, “a lot of stuff happens” before accreditors take extreme actions, such as placing an institution on probation.
“There are notices, revisits, focused self studies,” Phillips said. “There’s a bunch of things that happen.”
She asked whether it would be helpful to publicize those intermediate steps, such as when an institution is placed on a watchlist.
“That’s a transparency issue also,” Phillips said. “It’s just not visible. But you all know it’s there. But can you describe it in an elevator talk?”
Kvaal said it’s important for accreditors to try to capture the “life altering benefits” of college that transcend the economic benefits.
“I think it is an opportunity to exhibit some leadership over saying to students and parents, ‘This is the value of this institution, this program,’” Kvaal said. “I think it’s a time when it’s more important than ever that accreditors work together to make sure that there’s some consistency in terminology and process across accreditors.”
But he also acknowledged a perception that, if an accreditor “tries too hard to hold an institution’s feet to the fire,” the institution will attempt to switch accreditors.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.