For the past 12 years, the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) has offered an innovative means for colleges and universities to maintain regional accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the only regional U.S. accrediting commission currently providing alternative pathways for maintaining accreditation. Although all HLC pathways assure that its accredited colleges and universities meet identical fundamental expectations, we designed AQIP specifically to infuse a culture of continuous quality improvement into colleges and universities through processes that provide evidence for accreditation. By aligning accreditation with the ongoing activities they execute to improve performance and by sharing their improvement results with AQIP, institutions develop the quality mindset critical to achieving the distinctive higher education mission they have set for themselves. At the same time, they generate the evidence that enables their accreditor to provide the public with assurance that they meet quality standards.
We developed AQIP in 1999 with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Since its launch in 2000, it has grown steadily from its original 14 institutions to over 200 today. Its website, www.AQIP.org, lists the currently participating institutions and provides full details about AQIP's strategy forums, systems appraisals, principles, categories, and other elements.
Higher Education Accreditation Traditions
AQIP's distinctiveness is most visible when contrasting it with traditional accreditation. Historically, regional (or institutional) accreditation has served two very different ends: assuring and improving quality. Regional accreditation's roots lie in the formation of membership organizations that helped groups of institutions adopt common practices and definitions. These improved the quality of the weakest members, so quality improvement was always a major goal.
With the creation of the GI Bill following World War II, the federal government sought a mechanism to ensure that the benefits veterans received could be spent only in institutions of reasonable quality--not squandered in diploma mills or stolen by fly-by-night frauds--and quality assurance thus became a key function of accreditation. Since then, reservations about how well accreditors could perform this "gatekeeper" function of judging quality have grown steadily. The regional accreditors, in particular, evolved with a "wide tent" approach that welcomed a broad spectrum of institutions--diverse in who they serve, what programs they offer, and in the quality of their services, programs, and faculty. Most regional accreditors were not eager to reduce the number of institutions they accredited by establishing narrow or exclusive standards. Yet their lack of demanding standards was exactly what made it difficult for outsiders and governments to trust accreditation as quality assurance. Regionals have resisted habitual pressure for a ranking system, largely because ranking has never been popular with institutions. Everyone seems comfortable with accreditation that results in one of two decisions, accredited or unaccredited, with little room for more descriptive shades of grey and little public information explaining the decision.
In spite of tension between its quality assurance and quality improvement roles, traditional accreditation has accomplished much worth praising. It has provided a periodic self-study process in which all the members of a higher education institution can collectively and openly ask "What are we here for?" and "Are we doing what is essential for achieving our goals?" Accreditation regularly exposes an institution's practices to the scrutiny of peers from higher education's "community of practice." It provides opportunities for an institution's faculty and staff to serve as peer reviewers who scrutinize other institutions, thereby assimilating institutions and their employees to industry norms. …