Accrediting Higher Education Quality for the Public Good

By Dr. Betty Overton, Ph.D.


A response to “Has Higher Education Lost Control Over Quality?” by Ellen Hazelkorn

Chronicle of Higher Education, May 23, 2013

Betty Overton-Adkins

In our society and indeed in the world, higher education is still one of the primary doors through which citizens move to achieve personal intellectual growth, to prepare for a work life, and to improve one generation over the next.  Obtaining a college degree makes a significant contribution to the welfare of individuals and provides a route to social and economic growth.  However, in recent years the value and quality of the higher education experience are being questioned, and the quality of our primary outputs — college graduates — are being challenged.  An old commerical asked us “where is the beef?”  The academy is being asked, “where is your quality?”  Show us.  If the academy is being asked to show its quality, that means our publics are not seeing “it” in the students to whom we hand diplomas every year.  Ellen Hazelkorn’s opinion piece, “Has Higher Education Lost Control Over Quality?” appeared in the May 23, 2013 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  In this brief article, Hazelkorn joins a growing chorus of voices questioning the quality of our institutions and their products.  In response to these concerns, she sees new non-higher education players entering the discourse to describe and market quality.   Her conclusion, “while higher education has traditionally been the primary guardian of quality, its role has effectively been usurped.”

There is no denying that questions about quality abound—from parents, the business commmunity, and legislators at all levels.  The questions are causing the public (in its various forms) to ask for new forms of proof.  Show us you are still worth the trust and investment, they say.  Many in the public are no longer willing to trust the men and women who inhabit the halls of ivy to affirm that they have taught well. Teaching well is important but not the end game.  Nor are all of the other input measures we have used as a proxy for quality—endowments, library and laboratory resources, types of degrees, faculty, and the other prestige measures that have been used for our quality assessment process.  The new lexicon of quality is being framed as measureable learning outcomes and cost benefits both to the students and to the society.   In a March 2013 speech to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, Jamie Merisotis, President of the Lumina Foundation for Education, described this new focus on quality:

In short, our commitment to quality is not only about increasing the attainment of degrees on a national or global level, but also about making certain that the degrees that are awarded are valuable for those who attain them. (Merisotis, 2013).

So who is responsible for assuring the quality of our institutions?  The answer is not simple.  There are multiple players.  Certainly it is the institutions themselves who must do this through their hiring and scrutiny of faculty, review of teaching, and assessment of student outcomes and other activities.  State governments which charter institutions to operate in their jurisdictions also have some responsibility for ensuring that their citizens are protected from unscrupulous and low quality operations. But since the late 19th century in the U.S., higher education has also organized and given authority to groups of regional organizations, called accreditors, to provide ongoing reviews of the work of the academy.  In the current debate about quality, it is these organizations that are often the ones getting a black eye for not more effectively ensuring the quality of our institutions.  Indeed, the new rankings cited in Hazelkorn’s piece are framed as attempts to fill the void left by the deficits in the accreditation process.  The rankings, as she admits, have tended to muddy the water even more, as each uses different and sometimes contradictory standards of measures.  Even the federal government’s entry into the “quality assessor” arena has not clarified the situation but added another voice to the chorus.  Parents, students, funders, investors, public officials, and others now have a dozen or more places to wade through, to compare and contrast, and although more information is often a good thing, these new sources leave searchers with perhaps no clearer picture of what quality means, especially when it is defined in terms of what students learn, than they had previously.

Is there a solution?  There must be.  However, I am not sure that the plethora of new rankings and reports are it.  Few everyday citizens even know they exist—despite the hype of reports like the U.S. News & World Report rankings or the federal government’s new website.  Additionally, the parents who need this information the most, parents of first generation or low-income students, usually don’t access this information.  The accrediting associations have one advantage; most people have some vague sense that institutions need to be accredited.  Even if they don’t know fully what that means, they understand there is an approval process, and they know there are organizations that exist where they can “report” an institution.  So the accreditation agencies may have the most visibility with “the public.”  Therefore, they may be the organizations to whom the largest number of individuals might turn, beyond the institutions themselves, to seek answers about quality and to get redress for issues of quality.  But the accreditors do seem stuck in old modes of review, action and reporting. Until very recently, all they told us about an institution was whether it was accredited or not, unless an institution was perhaps on probation and that condition was rarely explained. They seem timid about pronouncements about the quality of an institution and unsure of their footing in their tightrope walk between their member institutions and their role in protecting the integrity of higher education as an industry. The debate about the personal and public benefit of higher education is mirrored in a similar dialogue with the accreditors between the institutional and public purposes of their existence. However, for now, scrapping them, as some have suggested, is probably not the solution.  Throwing the baby out with the bathwater has always proven a costly solution.  But finding new ways to base accreditation on agreed upon rigorous standards and differentiating among levels of outcome attainments might more accurately reflect the reality of our current higher education landscape.

What is possible?  Given the National Forum’s focus on “the public good,” this issue of quality, especially as it manifests itself through the accreditation process, seems like one that is ready made for some consideration, and it is one to which we plan to give some attention over the next few years.  We understand the primary purposes of accreditation as institutional improvement and consumer protection, and we seek to engage two primary areas of work related to this topic:  1) examining the structure and process of accreditation to gauge what we need to know to make determinations of quality and 2) the public’s need for critical information for decision about institutional quality.

As our country and the world continue to tout the importance of higher education for global competitiveness and social mobility, this issue of higher education quality will loom large for us.  We must address this issue for the public good.