Upgrade Required: New Modes of Higher Education Require Changes in Accreditation Methods

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A new $2.3 million "reciprocity" initiative announced in August is expected to bring uniformity and efficiency to an area of higher education where little exists. Under the initiative --formally known as the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement, or SARA--it will become less costly and potentially easier for colleges and universities to offer distance education courses across state lines.

"This will make it possible for more institutions to offer online learning and make it possible for students to benefit from a consistent set of criteria and, hopefully, high levels of quality assurances," says Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

"Basically, what this is doing is creating a mechanism where an institution can get authorized in many states, and, hopefully, as states sign up to participate in the reciprocity [agreement], they'll be able to get authorized in every state simply by meeting the requirements of their home state and the home state taking responsibility for consumer protections," adds Lingenfelter.

SARA is led by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE, and funded by the Lumina Foundation for Education. The initiative represents just one of several ways that the regulatory landscape of higher education is being reshaped to accommodate new modes and platforms of educational delivery. Much of the conversation about regulatory reform in higher education, however, has focused on accreditation. Leaders in the field say the changing modes in which higher education is being delivered-online and otherwise--mean changes in accreditation are needed.

"We know that we need to make significant changes in higher education to dramatically increase attainment," says Dewayne Matthews, vice president of policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation.

Matthews notes that students--a growing number of whom come from unprepared or ill-prepared groups, such as low-income or first generation college students--no longer go through higher education in "linear" form, but instead go back and forth between different types of institutions and programs, including Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

"All of this stuff is learning, and all of it is relevant, and they compile a program of studies out of this to satisfy degree requirements that are set up at an institutional level," says Matthews. "All of these things put enormous challenges on accreditation?

Matthews says Lumina has no interest in "abolishing or replacing" accreditation, which serves as a principal gateway for institutions of higher learning to access the $150 billion in grants and loans disbursed by the federal government each year to support higher education.

"The work right now is mainly on the inclusion of stronger approaches to defining and measuring the learning outcomes of degrees," he says. "And that's the big issue."

According to Matthews, Lumina's work on the issue involves "tuning," which Lumina describes as a "faculty-driven process that identifies what a student should know and be able to do in a chosen discipline when a degree has been earned," Another related aspect of Lumina's work involves its Degree Qualifications Profile, described as a "qualifications framework" that "illustrates clearly what students should be expected to know and be able to do once they earn their degree."

The Lumina-funded SARA initiative is separate from its work in accreditation, although some of the related issues--such as quality assurance for students--may overlap.

Others have called for more substantial reforms in accreditation. A top criticism of the status quo is that accreditation is a peer review process that is too strongly controlled by existing entities and serves as a barrier to innovation.

"Accreditation is a club, and if you want to join the club, or be allowed to stay in the club, you have to show that you're like the other members," Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, a research and policy organization, testified in June during a congressional hearing titled "Keeping College Within Reach: Discussing Program Quality Through Accreditation. …

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