I am pleased to write the introduction to this special themed issue of Planning for Higher Education, which focuses on the topic of accreditation in higher education. Accreditation is the lifeblood for most colleges and universities: without accreditation from an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, no Title IV federal financial aid can flow into an institution. According to the Department of Education in its Federal Student Aid Annual Report, 2011, over $157 billion in student aid was disbursed to over 15 million students in postsecondary institutions throughout the country. Without that student aid, a significant number of institutions would simply be forced to close their doors.
The evolution of postsecondary accreditation into this financial aid "gatekeeper" role has been an interesting odyssey. Quality assurance in higher education--in other words, accreditation--is built on a completely different premise in the United States than anywhere else in the world. The U.S. model traces its origins back to the late 19th century and is predicated on a system of voluntary peer review to ensure that colleges and universities conform to standards that define excellence within postsecondary education. The terms "voluntary" and "peer review" are critical. Unlike in most other nations, there is no federal ministry overseeing quality assurance in U.S. colleges and universities. The process truly is both voluntary and peer defined. I had the good fortune to spend the past nine years as a commissioner with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one of six regional institutional accrediting bodies in the United States, including the last two as chair of the commission. During that time, I became thoroughly familiar not only with the accreditation standards and processes in the Middle States region, but also with those in the other regions as well. The concept of peer assessment--without governmental interference--of the extent to which colleges and universities comply with standards of educational excellence is a distinctly American value, a precious process we must not lose.
I have had the opportunity over the years to consult with postsecondary institutions in Europe, Australia, South America, and Canada, all of which operate within a federal ministerial model of quality assurance. While making no judgment with respect to the relative effectiveness of the ministerial model when compared with the U.S. model of voluntary peer assessment, I can tell you that the former is far more prescriptive and bureaucratic and far less sensitive to the differences between and among institutional missions within higher education systems. In my view, the defining characteristic that makes American higher education great is the diversity of institutions that compose it and the capacity of accrediting bodies to recognize and understand that diversity while striving to assure educational excellence. Of particular importance to members of the Society for College and University Planning is the insistence by all six regional accrediting entities in the United States that institutions demonstrate continuous quality improvement rooted in strategic planning that makes effective use of evidence-based assessments.
Not everyone in the United States shares my confidence in the effectiveness of a collegial approach to accreditation. As the accreditation process has evolved to its current gatekeeper role with regard to federal financial aid, and with hundreds of billions of dollars hanging in the balance, there have been increasingly more vocal calls for greater transparency and accountability in how we certify that institutions are meeting high standards in educating their students. Much of the dissatisfaction has come from employers who hire college graduates with diminished oral and written communication skills, questionable computational competencies, and inability to work collaboratively with others. The response of colleges and universities in general, and accrediting agencies in particular, has been a movement to outcomes-based evidence of compliance with accreditation standards. …