Higher Education accreditation: Is there another way through the looking glass?



The recent decision by the Board of Trustees to close Sweet Briar College raises an important question. Is there a better way to coordinate the findings of ratings groups to assist colleges and universities going forward?

What would have happened if Sweet Briar College had worked more closely with a better educated group of internal and external stakeholders who possessed broader knowledge of its circumstances, a deeper understanding of what external ratings groups thought, and an analytical framework of metrics, best practices and higher education trends?

The fact is that American higher education is hypersensitive to open discussions about accreditation, fearing most the imposition of a centralized national accreditation agency and the loss of Title IV student aid funds, now tied to accreditation. These are hot button issues that make even balanced discussion of how to improve accreditation difficult.

To this end, the regional accreditation agencies have relied upon the self-study to determine the path forward for an institution. On the surface, it makes sense to do so.

Typically led by the academic administration or well-respected faculty, the self-study reinforces that the institution is fundamentally sound. Establishing a big-picture framework for the self-study, the document is often an accurate and thoughtful assessment of what matters most on a campus.

To provide perspective, a balanced team of outside reviewers of administrators and faculty – some with specialized professional training that can be of use to the college under review — are drawn from similar institutions to provide an accurate frame of reference, review the document, conduct a site visit, offer a series of recommendations, and forward their findings to the accreditation agency whose board oversees the final decision.

It’s the foundation to a reasonable if time-consuming approach to accreditation.

Yet accreditation can often either be the impetus behind productive change or a carefully constructed, self-congratulatory “pat on the back,” depending upon any number of variables.

As one president said to me recently, if the board or president wants a new field house, the quiet discussions surrounding the report can produce a call for one. But these sidebar conversations may also politicize the accreditation process, blurring the lines between what is wanted or even needed and the process of how a campus community arrives at this decision.

The problem is even deeper because American colleges and universities are no longer isolated “cities upon a hill,” relevant only to themselves or other institutions in their class or at their level in the higher education pecking order. They are living, dynamic and evolving institutions that share more with one another than ever before because the problems and opportunities that they face play out on a global scale.

Let’s imagine the possible. What if we decoupled federal oversight of student aid, and federal regulation itself, from accreditation?

Is it possible to imagine a self-study that built out from the internal reviews to incorporate the findings and opinions of new classes of stakeholders who could add value to an institution’s study of its people, programs and facilities? What role should rating agencies, bondholders, the local community, alumni and donors play? Are there other voices that can add discipline, perspective, and most important, fresh thinking that might benefit where the college or university is headed?

This question raises even deeper concerns about the purpose of an accreditation study and the choice of an on-site team. Is the study important because Title IV student aid funds hang in the balance? Is it more critical because a good self-study can facilitate consensus and transparency across campus? Or, are the team’s findings a window to the world to encourage a flow of best practices, identify red flags, and link the needs of the campus community to financial, philanthropic, cultural, political, and social realities likely faced after the accreditation findings are made?

One answer is that an experienced chair, leading an outside review team, can accomplish a great deal. Yet this answer presumes that the chair and the visiting team are broadly educated bearers of best practices rather than proponents of status quo administrative, financial, and educational routine. How effective can a team be if their selection is based on seniority, a willingness to serve, and personal reputation without adding fresh perspective that extends well beyond their complimentary experiences at their own institutions?

The discussion raises the larger question of why we accredit higher education, and specifically, whether accreditation can be more effectively deployed as a tool to move an institution forward. At a minimum, accreditation should be separated from continued eligibility to receive federal student aid. Better yet it should also be an opportunity to broaden the discussion among stakeholders, including other rating groups and those who hold the college debt. At best it should be an opportunity to extend the good dialogue initiated with a self-study to a point where accreditation becomes a diagnostic aid to strengthen an institution and define its place within higher education.

It may be a way to stop even more Sweet Briars from emerging unexpectedly.