The word sounds like something concocted in an ivory tower of academe — tricky to pronounce, clunky to hear and void of obvious meaning:
It’s a somewhat arcane process colleges and universities go through regularly to prove the quality of their programs. And it has been local news lately.
Most recently, The Commonwealth Medical College held media events in not one but three locations to tout full accreditation by two agencies: The Liaison Committee for Medical Education and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Both achievements are worthy of praise.
Last week we learned that King’s College and The University of Scranton had received warnings their accreditation from Middle States could be in jeopardy. Both schools said they are working to correct problems that prompted the warnings.
Marywood University is awaiting news on a review conducted this spring by the Accreditation Commission of Education in Nursing. In 2013 that commission had announced Marywood’s nursing program would lose its accreditation, but the school appealed and accreditation was maintained pending the outcome of this review. And Middle States put Luzerne County Community College on probation in 2011, lifted a year later.
For the average person this all starts to sound like mumbo jumbo. But to prospective students and employers, accreditation matters. It means an institution or a particular program (such as nursing) is up to snuff. Typically, they have been scrutinized by peers and found compliant with a lengthy set of standards created by an agency approved by the federal government. Which, not incidentally, also means students in accredited programs are eligible for federal grants or loans.
But as obtuse as accreditation may be to most, it has come under some no-nonsense scrutiny in recent years. Many concerns were pointedly raised during a 2013 hearing by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. To wit:
• Does accreditation cost too much for the school getting the credentials, thus driving up student expenses?
• Is the process too secretive?
• Is it a stodgy idea from the past that stifles innovative institutions in a digital revolution?
• Should accreditation be different at for-profit institutions?
• Should it include criteria to protect parents and students from soaring tuition?
Accrediting agencies insist they are adapting. Pundits and politicians cherry pick criticisms to advance ideological agendas. Recommendations are often a variation of the Goldilocks conundrum, sounding either too simple or too radical: Disconnect accreditation from federal student aid; revamp the system to include cost containment as a criteria; introduce an independent federal ranking of colleges based on “rate of return” on student/parent investment.
Accreditation has, generally, been an effective quality control for institutions of higher learning, linked to but not controlled by government. It stresses corrective, rather than punitive action. Relying heavily on peer review, it accentuates collaboration over competition.
If it was secretive, it is not so much anymore. The warnings issued to King’s and Scranton were posted on the Middle States Commission’s website, easy to find. Standards a school must meet are also posted.
In short, in many ways accreditation is a model of self-regulation. That said, there is increasing reason to believe accrediting agencies responded too slowly to rapid changes in demographics, in technology, and in the business of higher education itself.
It is time for the accrediting agencies to conduct more rigorous, more aggressive reviews of their methods and objectives and consider changes, lest “accreditation” go from arcane to irrelevant.