Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Future of Accreditation

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

The Future of Accreditation

Article excerpt

Can the collegial model flourish in the context of the government's assertiveness and the impact of nationalization and technology? How?


Accreditation, the primary means of assuring and improving academic quality in U.S. higher education, has endured for more than 100 years. While accommodating many changes in higher education and society, accreditation's fundamental values and practices have remained essentially intact, affirming their sturdiness. Today, more than 80 organizations accredit more than 7,800 colleges and universities and 20,000 programs (Council for Higher Education Accreditation 2012).

Accreditation is a form of self-regulation - professionals reviewing professionals and academics reviewing academics. To carry out this process, nongovernmental, independent accrediting organizations were established, usually by professional societies or organizations of colleges and universities. The American Medical Association, created in 1847, began classifying medical schools in 1905. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, established in 1885, adopted standards of membership in 1929 and initiated accreditation in 1954 (Brittingham 2009; Orlans 1975). Standards and policies were developed to judge institutions and programs on both threshold quality and quality improvement. Periodic review, ranging from every three to every ten years, became the norm. Self-regulation included a self-review against accreditation standards by each institution or program, followed by a peer review and then a judgment by the accrediting organization about whether standards were met and accredited status was to be awarded.

All of this activity - establishing an organization, setting standards, self-review, peer review, and accreditation judgment - is funded and managed by colleges and universities. Typically, an accrediting organization has a paid staff of modest size to carry out its functions and a volunteer decision-making body or commission responsible for both judgment about accredited status and the governance of the accrediting body. A large cadre of volunteer academics is used to conduct peer reviews, with some 19,000 serving in 2008-2009. During that year, accrediting organizations collected and spent more than $98 million in fees to fund more than 760 full- and part-time professionals and thousands of volunteers who reviewed or took other actions (e.g., special visits, review of special reports) on approximately 3,000 institutions and more than 4,600 programs (Council for Higher Education Accreditation 2010).

Accreditation has been a very successful enterprise, part of a schema of quality review that has served higher education well. Colleges and universities in the United States are acknowledged throughout the world as having achieved an extraordinary level of access and degree of quality in both teaching and research. Accreditation has been part of preserving the diversity of higher education institutions and the many types of educational experiences available to students; it has also played a role in maintaining healthy competition among colleges and universities. Accreditation in the United States is one of the most powerful examples of successful nongovernmental oversight of a major social institution in any society.

Two Relationships that Define Accreditation

Accreditation is both built on and reflective of the core values of the academy: peer review, the centrauty of mission, institutional autonomy, and academic freedom. Peers judge institutional quality based on respective institutional missions. Review of quality is collégial, primarily qualitative, formative, and focused on improvement. Accreditation both requires and supports institutional autonomy and self-determination in making academic judgments concerning curriculum, faculty, and academic standards. It is committed to academic freedom - to assuring that faculty have appropriate discretion with regard to what is taught, who is taught, who teaches, and what standards are applied. …

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