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Christensen Institute: Now's the Time for a Makeover in College Accreditation

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As a committee charged with rulemaking for the U.S. Department of Education dukes it out on accreditation matters in higher education, the Christensen Institute has weighed in with recommendations to keep innovation in mind.

The remarkably pithy three-page brief has emphasized two "key dynamics" that expose how current accreditation practices get in the way of innovation in areas such as access, affordability and proving the value of a college education. As authors Alana Dunagan and Michael Horn noted, "It is impossible to know what innovative models can or will be accredited, as similar initiatives are treated differently by different accreditors — even by the same accreditor at different points in time. Institutions that are able to innovate are those blessed by geography — a cooperative, forward-thinking regional accreditor — as well as finances." Others believe they can't afford to innovate or are in the position of facing an accreditation process that dings them when experimental programs fail and are shut down.

Also, the short report asserted, accrediting standards focus too much on areas of "input" (the caliber of professors, committees and processes) rather than outcomes (graduation rates, retention rates, student satisfaction and the like). In fact, the brief pointed out, no institution is held responsible "for meeting any specific outlines." The concentration on inputs makes it doubly hard for schools to change their business models.

What's needed? The Institute offered three recommendations:

  • Eliminate the heavy stress on inputs and replace those with a system that highlights outcomes. Among the measures to consider: "learning assessments; graduation rates; student employment outcomes; salary growth; ability to repay student loans; return on investment ... and graduate satisfaction."
  • Develop "transparent" standards and processes. The accreditors need to "provide clearer guidance around how they'll evaluate nontraditional approaches," the brief stated. That way, schools can avoid the expense and other problems tied to hitting unexpected obstacles.
  • Go beyond current accreditation practices. That could mean junking the old and building anew. The Institute's suggestion: launching new accrediting agencies organized by "type of school, rather than by region." Taking that approach would encourage "deeper specialization around the issues that pertain to each of the various higher education models: research universities, undergraduate liberal arts institutions, community colleges and technical schools."

The brief is openly available on the Christensen Institute website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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