College accreditors in no-win situation

In this morning’s piece “No Love, but No Alternative” on Inside Higher Ed, Doug Lederman explores the seemingly conflicting mandate placed on accrediting bodies and the challenges of creating an alternative to replace the current system.  In response, Excelsior College President John Ebersole, offered the following comment:

This is the first article I’ve seen that reflects an understanding of the dilemma faced by the accreditors. On one hand we have those who accuse these bodies of not being tough enough, while those who want easier access to Title IV money accuse them of being too tough, and anti-innovation. Seems like they might have it about right.

From viewpoint of someone who has gone through the accreditation review process multiple times, AND has led teams of reviewers at other institutions, along with representatives from the state in which the institution was located, I can assure those who want accreditors to be tougher, than there is a) nothing easy about the process, b) there IS a focus on proof of outcome (that has been in place for nearly a decade), and c) for the three regions where I have had experience (WASC, MSCHE and New England), there has been nothing but support for innovation. The greatest barrier to innovation is the U.S. Department of Education. While the political appointees talk a good game, the career civil servants often seem to be saying “over my dead body.” Online learning was accepted as a means of instructional delivery by WASC 20 YEARS before the Department recognized for Title IV purposes.

What is it we want of accreditation, police powers to go after the proverbial bad actors, or a quality control body that can be trusted by institutions to help improve the quality of what they do? The two functions are not compatible.

As for the idea of allowing every state to decide for themselves what should be accredited is a recipe for truly killing innovation, as well as reducing access to the offerings of nationally serving institutions such as WGU and my own. We have just spent 10 YEARS getting the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) in place. I can’t begin to imagine how long it would take to have a similar agreement around accreditation.

I see no evidence of an unwillingness to change on the part of the regional accreditors. What I don’t see is any consensus around what it is that we want changed.

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