In the last week or so there has been some startling and potentially tragic news on the accreditation front at the university level. No fewer than three institutions, with nearly 100,000 students, have been notified that they are at immediate risk of losing their accreditation. The public City College of San Francisco (33,000 students, with a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education putting that number at 90,000), private Mountain State University in West Virginia (4,800 students), and for-profit Ashford University (57,000 students) all seem not only to have neglected fundamental aspects of their operations and organizations but also failed to act fully on previous notice that their accreditation would be at risk. (I refrain here from commentary on the substance of each school’s situation.)
What this could mean for students is obvious: a great de-valuing of degrees earned and coursework under way, and above all ineligibility for most federally administered financial aid—millions of student-hours of hard work and sacrifice potentially squandered, sacrifices largely made by students whose resources were limited in the first place. The leaders of these institutions should be, at the least, ashamed of themselves. The whole thing makes me want to weep.
But it also makes me want to cheer. As I have written here and elsewhere, accreditation lies at the heart of quality control in the education business, a necessary evil to some but a valued seal of approval to consumers and peers alike in our consumerist and “credentialist” society. Thus, for accreditors to show their teeth, even in only a tiny percentage of cases, is a reminder that there are, at least, minimum standards AND organizations who are looking after students’ long-term interests.
In the short term, of course, the folks at CC San Francisco, Mountain State, and Ashford had better be working to rectify the issues that have led to their current crises, although I hear the word “appeal” more loudly than “fix” in some of the news reports. These schools owe it to their current students to make sure that hard work and sacrifice don’t simply lead to tainted diplomas or transcripts—that is the tragedy.
In The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring make the point that accreditation has acted in the past as a potential brake on innovation, a reactionary force with the power to reel in practices that don’t conform to established models. This argument seems more than fair on the face of it, and from their perspective through the lens of “disruptive innovation,” I suspect that Christensen and Eyring have it about right, at least at the university level. To the extent that accreditation is a way of enforcing “guild” rules as a preemptive hedge against other kinds of (e.g., government) regulation as well as a way of ensuring program quality, a certain conservatism is to be expected.
As I have suggested in the pages of Independent School magazine, a forward-thinking approach to accreditation can also motivate and substantiate a case for change. Having done a bit of work on behalf of the National Association of Independent Schools Commission on Accreditation, the liaison between the independent school community and its many accrediting bodies, I have a sense of how seriously the Commission takes its work to make sure that our schools are living up to their purposes, their potential, and their collective raison d’etre. As standards evolve in the face of new operational practices, new technologies (and disruptive innovations, for that matter) and new understandings about the nature of learning, the Commission is set on creating a process that gently but resolutely prods schools in the direction of, as it were, improving the breed.
Having been on a few—and I wish there had been time for more—accreditation visiting teams and having overseen the production of one full report and parts of others, I also know that the accreditation cycle makes demands on a school that seem at times distracting, even a pain. I have experienced the anxiety of visiting a school with serious issues and having to help the school confront them and look for solutions, and I have experienced the disappointment of a visiting team that, while positive and affirming, seemed to have missed some of the most exciting work a school was doing. The process isn’t perfect, we know.
Schools must take accreditation seriously and not merely view it as a decennial burden of dotting some i’s and crossing some t’s, partly for the satisfaction of some higher authority but mostly for the relief of getting through something annoying and pro forma. Schools that truly want to grow and improve know that they can use the accreditation process as a chance to do some real stock-taking and to understand the ways in which evolving standards can make them better places for teaching and learning.
Smart accreditation self-studies are part of an overall strategic approach to school improvement, perhaps linking planning cycles to important administrative transitions to capital undertakings and major program change. A good study is not just a sheaf of paper suitable for filing but a thorough exploration of the school as it is and how it might be, and a great visiting team—or even a good team prompted by the school—can provide valuable, useful feedback on how things really are relative to beliefs and hopes.
If accreditation standards are in some sense minimums—making the situation at the three colleges seem even sadder—they can also be interpreted in ways that make them stand for the highest ideals and standards of practice. Schools that undertake their work around this responsibility with an eye to making the most of an opportunity rather than getting through it not only justify, even exalt, the ideals behind the process but set an exemplary course for others—not a course that puts institutions and their students at risk.
I hope that we never see independent schools experiencing anything like the troubles that CC San Francisco, Mountain State, and Ashford have gotten themselves into. But these cases, tumbling into the news one after another in a short space of time, are a reminder that shoddy practice sooner or later will out. If interventions and sanctions based on accreditation become a real trend, this will in itself change the ways we think about the process. But it shouldn’t come to that; schools at all levels should see accreditation as a benefit, not a penalty.