As I continue in this series on higher education policy, I now shift from policy considerations related to student financial aid to the government’s role in educational quality assurance. Consider my higher education policy proposition #9:
Government policy should respect and support independent peer review as a credible quality assurance mechanism.
What accreditation produces
You are likely aware of two important facts regarding US higher educational quality assurance:
- accreditation by means of peer review has produced the most diverse, envied, and emulated higher education landscape in the world; and
- judgment of higher education quality throughout US history has stood upon three pillars: (a) institutional integrity; (b) institutional self-study; and (c) peer review.
How do peers gauge higher educational quality? The pursuit of that question within the so-called quality assurance community has undergone an evolutionary trajectory over the past century. Early measures, consisting of curricular content comparability and rigor relative to peer institutions, gave way to resource measures (e.g., library, faculty, endowment, student selectivity), to which were added process measures (i.e., structures, practices, policies, documentation, consistency of implementation), to which were added outcomes measures (e.g., documented learning gains).
Accreditation abuses and reform proposals
Two factors, increasing federal investment in student financial aid, and erosion of the essential “institutional integrity” pillar noted above, have ignited increasingly urgent and shrill calls for reform in the quality assurance arena. Reformers rightly decry the widely publicized and scandalous abuses of bad actors within both institutional and accrediting agency ranks—largely, though not exclusively, among for-profit providers. But such calls for reform are, in my judgment, flawed in two critical ways.
First, would-be reformers are, in effect, proposing to deputize accrediting agencies as government policy enforcers or, worse, to replace peer review accreditation entirely as a basis for student aid eligibility and instead install the government as the sole arbiter of educational quality and integrity.
Second, they promote a skewed and truncated notion of quality based primarily, if not exclusively, upon output measures (e.g., retention and completion, employment, student/alumni satisfaction), furthering an entirely commodified view of higher education’s purpose. I refer you once again to my previous post, Enough Already of the Commodification of Higher Education.
A cure worse than the disease
Accreditation reforms may be warranted, but the wholesale replacement of accreditation grounded in institutional integrity, self-study, and peer review is entirely without warrant. Overall, most of the present accreditation apparatus remains a far superior educational quality assurance mechanism than the rigid, prescriptive, and superficial governmental compliance audits and “big data” solutions being championed by the Gates and Lumina Foundations and their surrogates. Instead, I strongly subscribe to and support the goals and policy proposals set forth in an April 2017 Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) position paper entitled, Regulatory Relief for Accreditation.
For all its flaws, independent peer review offers the best balance between protecting higher education’s consumers and investors (including government) and preserving American higher education’s enviable independence, diversity, and creativity.
Next time, I will address how accreditation must help rather than impede credit portability, student mobility, and progress toward degree completion.
Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …
This thoughtful essay by CUNY Queens President James Muyskens, re-posted in ABHE Senior Fellow Gary Stratton’s Two-Handed Warriors blog, re-asserts the critical nature of introductory general education courses, to inspire students and have them experience the joy of learning. … provide students with the tools to learn how to learn, to follow and generate arguments, to witness the serendipity of discovery and the rigors of confirming a hypothesis. Muyskens argues that achievement of these aims will require us to assign our most gifted faculty to such courses and demand high-touch, active learning, and intellectual rigor.