Higher education accreditation in the U.S. has been around since the late 19th century with little to no change in the process by which educational institutions are evaluated for quality. But like education overall, accreditation is currently in a state of metamorphosis and criticism. As education changes, we expect to see accreditation transition as well, and these are the adjustments that we predict for the future of college accreditation.
It’s no secret that MOOCs are hot right now, and many students are interested in what they have to offer as a learning experience. In fact, Massachusetts is home to one of the nation’s largest MOOC or Open Course providers: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Coursera is MOOC provider that partners with several major universities, including New Jersey’s Princeton University. However, what they’re lacking is credit from an accredited institution. So if students want to earn a degree for their hard-fought MOOC successes, they’ll need to get it through a school that can offer it. We expect to see accredited institutions join in with MOOCs, or develop their own large-scale courses in the same vein.
We’re not expecting to see achievement badges come from the ivory tower of accreditation anytime soon, but it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see it happening someday. Badges for education are already supported by the U.S. Department of Education as a resource for credentialing and recognizing learning in a variety of settings, and especially as a way to support online and lifelong learning efforts. Ultimately, the DOE hopes to offer badges as a way to give credit to students, particularly for use in the career marketplace. With the DOE behind academic badges, we may see them pushing accrediting organizations and institutions to support and recognize them as well.
Although it’s possible the Department of Education will push for new ideas and developments in accreditation, overall, we expect to see government oversight of accreditation get pulled back a bit. It is becoming increasingly clear that government regulations are hopelessly out of touch with today’s educational needs. For example, in Minnesota, the Office of Higher Education required that no one offer courses unless they were authorized by the state through a bureaucratic process involving forms, fees, and approvals. This posed a problem for Minnesotans taking classes through Coursera, a free online learning site that had not jumped through the state’s proper hoops. Thanks to national outcry, the rule was struck down in just one day. Federal regulations have been troublesome as well. In the past, the federal government fought to require online education providers to get state-by-state authorization, a cost-prohibitive process for small schools in states like Maine and Oregon, but the courts have managed to stop this requirement. These developments point to education, and further, accreditation, becoming a self-managing marketplace that requires significantly less government intervention.
For students who wish to transfer to a different college, it can be disheartening to find out that credits earned will not transfer to their new school. But that’s exactly what so many students go through, often when transferring from for-profit, nationally accredited colleges to non-profit, regionally accredited universities. Regionally accredited universities, such as Standford University in California, will typically recognize credits between institutions, but there’s not the same kind of reciprocation for nationally accredited ones, leaving students confused and frustrated. Students earning credits from an accredited institution expect for their learning experience to transfer wherever they go unless told otherwise, and we’re seeing uproar from students who feel they were misled, some going so far as to try to sue schools. Students are demanding a more easy to understand, clear-cut definition of accreditation and the ability to transfer credits between institutions, and we believe that they’ll see one soon.
For years, for-profit colleges have been purchasing nonprofit colleges suffering from financial problems, and in the process, holding on to their regional accreditation even if the institution itself changes dramatically. This practice has been met with opposition, and accreditors are beginning to push back. The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools recently rejected a series of accreditation continuation requests from schools in the aforementioned predicament. These rejections have been based on new policies by the HLC that require the schools to continue to offer a similar mission after purchase if they wish to continue accreditation. We can expect to see other major accreditors push back against accreditation shopping in a similar way.
Critics of the current accreditation system point out that although accreditation is the most highly trusted measure of quality in higher education, a positive academic outcome cannot be guaranteed for students. The problem? Accreditation is given almost entirely on the basis of inputs, like the number of books in a university library or the mission statement of the school. Measurable student learning and instructional quality do not make as large of an impact. Rather, critics suggest that accreditation focus more on the achievements of the university, like employability and educational outcomes, than endowments and disciplinary codes.
Under the current system, schools must be accredited in order to receive federal funding. That means accreditors “hold a gun — the threat of withholding federal funds — to the heads of colleges and universities.” A dangerous predicament, and one that Wisconsin Rep. Thomas E. Petri calls “too much on a one-switch decision.” In 2002, Petri introduced a House bill to cut the tie of funding and accreditation, but it did not pass. We may, however, see similar bills in the future as smaller schools that do not have the resources for accreditation push for a more even playing field.
For-profit Ashford University, headquartered in Iowa made headlines when the Western Association of Schools & Colleges rejected the school’s bid for accreditation. The accreditor found that Ashford did not meet faculty standards, had a large number of dropouts, and exhibited questionable academic standards. Additionally, Ashford’s focus seemed to be more on boosting enrollment than investing in academics. However, Ashford remains accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and a reapplication for accreditation is still pending at Western Association of Schools and Colleges. A decision on the WASC reapplication will be made by WASC later this year.
These problems are not unique to Ashford. In fact, congressional reports have found that among for-profit colleges, more emphasis is placed on recruiting and profit than educational outcomes. According to House Rep. Elijah Cummings’ report, for-profit schools tend to calculate executive compensation based “predominantly on the profitability of their companies rather than the success of their students.” And Ashford isn’t the only school with high attrition rates: in a Senate report, it was found that 54% of for-profit college students withdrew from school before graduation. These are problems that plague the for-profit college industry, and we expect that accreditors will further deny these schools the accreditation they seek.