<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="https://newamericadotorg-static.s3.amazonaws.com/static/css/newamericadotorg.min.css"></link>

Q&A: Paul Gaston on Accreditation, How It's Changed, and What It Still Needs to Do

What have accreditation agencies done to address new conditions in higher education? What should Congress do about accreditation in the fabled reauthorization of the Higher Education Act? Is the whole accreditors don't look at outputs" critique really a fair one?

Paul Gaston, a professor of English at Kent State University, has answers to these questions and more in his excellent new book "Higher Education Accreditation: How It's Changing, Why It Must." The book is quite timely, as accreditors increasingly serve as a punching bag in higher education policy circles, frequently drawing complaints and scrutiny from Congressional education committees, the Obama Administration, and other organizations, including New America. But Gaston argues that these various critiques miss the substantial efforts accreditors have been pursuing to adjust to changes in higher education, though he says there is still more work to be done.

Regardless of your policy opinions about accreditation, the book is an important contribution that will hopefully ground upcoming policy discussions about accreditation in greater detail.  It mixes important factual details, like a history of accreditation and explanation of its missions, with discussions of the different types of accreditation (regional, national, and specialized) to add more nuance to a debate that typically doesn't progress beyond the 40,000-foot level. And though the book is not without its own set of concerns about accreditation, the issues and solution are more detailed than typical talking points like "focus on outputs."

Gaston and I discussed his book and his views about accreditation over e-mail during the past week. That Q&A is presented below. Some of the questions have been edited down for length. 

Ed Central: You discuss in the book that higher education accreditation has done more to adapt to changing conditions and demands than it gets credit for. Are there specific changes or initiatives that you think are particularly indicative of these efforts?

Paul Gaston: Three initiatives will suggest the range of reform. The Higher Learning Commission’s new “Pathways” to regional accreditation embody a new flexibility—oversight of secure, highly effective institutions is less frequent and less intrusive than that of marginal ones—while relying more on efficient automated data reporting. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges has implemented a new accreditation handbookemphasizing its “focus on results” so far as student learning is concerned. And the Accreditation Commission for Audiology Education has implemented a web-based system that eliminates duplicative review and data entry. 

Why do you think these efforts have not gotten much attention, at least in federal policy circles, and what can be done to make them more visible?

Higher education accreditation remains inscrutable because of a perplexing and unnecessary variability in standards, protocols, and actions. And few accreditors have made a priority of communicating to the public more clearly. While working to define and clarify their considerable common ground, accreditors should collaborate on a communications strategy to tell their good story more effectively. 

There are a lot of common critiques of accreditation such as insufficient transparency, focusing too much on “inputs” instead of “outputs,” taking too long to act, and having financial conflicts of interest because accreditors accept funds from institutions to carry out the accreditation process. Do some of these represent legitimate concerns or are there other more pressing issues?

Different issues call for different answers. (1) Regional accreditors already are offering greater transparency, but they must make far more information available about their processes and actions. (2) The familiar “inputs vs. outputs” charge is a canard. For more than 25 years, accreditors have emphasized a focus on outputs. (3) If accreditors were able to reach consensus on their standards, protocols, and actions, they would be in a far stronger position to act expeditiously without raising due process concerns. (4) I know of no evidence suggesting that the way accreditation is funded compromises its objectivity. Other approaches, including that of governmental funding, might well prove more susceptible to exploitation. (5)

The most pressing issue facing accreditation is that of advancing the constructive narrative [described in the last answer].

A frequent frustration voiced about accreditation (and I include myself among those saying this) is that colleges with publicly identified problems such as inflated credit value, low rates of completion, high rates of churn, etc., can keep their accreditation and thus receive federal dollars seemingly with impunity. For example, I’m thinking of a number of for-profit institutions that have been accused of falsifying job placement numbers, engaging in high-pressure sales tactics, or things of that nature. Is it fair to critique accreditors for not being aggressive enough in these instances? Or is that really a larger story about higher education oversight and accountability that’s about more than accreditors?

Certainly, the story is “about more than accreditors.” For instance, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can take legal action against for-profit colleges that tolerate unacceptable levels of student failure and loan default. But accreditors should do more to clarify and enforce standards for affordability, degree completion, gainful employment, and the like. While some are already moving in this direction, here, too, accreditors would place themselves in a stronger position by addressing such issues collaboratively rather than individually. 

Though they may offer different approval processes, accreditors’ gatekeeper role for federal funds is still binary. An institution is either accredited and offers all types of federal student aid, or it is not and cannot award any federal funds. This means that removing accreditation would be akin to a death penalty for many schools and an extremely high-stakes decision. Would a tiered system where accreditors could allow institutions differing levels of access to federal funds (e.g., grants only but no loans, or lower loan limits) provide accreditors with greater flexibility to administer their gatekeeper role and potentially encourage more creativity by lowering the barriers for entry and exit? 

In concert with the USDE, “gatekeeper” accreditors should consider graduated options for providing access to federal student aid. Greater flexibility on several other fronts—time required for initial candidacy review, length of accreditation terms following initial review and approval, requirements for self-study, frequency and intrusiveness of on-site “audits” –would would also encourage creativity and innovation. 

Should Congress change accreditation as part of the next Higher Education Act? 

No. Higher educators, accrediting associations, institutions, and programs should change accreditation through consultation with one another and with the public. 

You've talked about the need for greater consensus among accreditors for a number of things including standards and processes. What’s the value in having that happen? Does the federal government have a role in achieving those goals?

While the federal government should avoid a role it is ill-equipped to pursue--Sen. Lamar Alexander [R-Tenn.] properly warns that accreditation must strengthen itself—or others will take up the task. For the reasons I outline in the book, greater consensus and collaboration in all arenas of accreditation would enhance public understanding of accreditation (and hence its credibility), promote efficiencies, encourage greater agility and creativity, improve decisiveness and transparency, and make it possible for accreditation to advance a persuasive shared vision of higher education and student success.

Higher education cost matters a great deal to the general public. Last year, the President called on Congress to add measures of affordability and value into existing accreditation requirements, which presumably would have made cost an explicit concern for accreditors. Do you think accreditors already consider cost in their work? 

Clearly, given the President’s directive, accreditors must become more explicit in their consideration of issues of affordability. While the diversity of U.S. higher education precludes any “bright line” affordability standards, accreditors should consider cost vs. value more directly from a student perspective, institution by institution, program by program. While this is hardly a new issue, accreditation can do more by working collaboratively to clarify expectations, monitor performance more regularly according to those expectations, and make more widely available the information gained.

There are lots of calls for improving quality in higher education. But it doesn’t seem like there’s an agreed upon definition or even set of concepts about what that would entail, making it hard to lay out what changes are actually wanted and/or needed. How can we make the discussion around higher education quality smarter? Given that surveys show that accreditors are among the biggest drivers of documenting learning results at colleges, what role should accreditors play in these efforts?

An excellent question. Accreditation should take a lead role in developing and setting forth a vision of higher education in the U.S. that is pragmatic, coherent, and principled. Indeed, as I argue in my book, accreditors’ advances in efficiency, agility, and transparency will count for little unless they share a vision that promotes the strengthening of higher education and aligns the values of higher education with the public interest. That means focusing on the education  of students as measured by what they know and can do. And it means advocacy for higher education not only as opportunity for individuals—but as a public good. Finally, a vision encompassing the long-term needs of the nation must confront the reductive view of higher education as solely preparation for work. Nations from Europe to the Pacific Rim are discovering the value of liberal education. We must not retreat from a long-standing advantage in this regard.