Accreditors Must Do More to “Be” About Student Success

Kernels of wisdom from some of Michale McComis’ favorite 1980s movies

From the Karate Kid’s lessons on persistence to Ferris Bueller’s cautionary tale about student choices and the Princess Bride’s rollicking tale of love and rebellion, the 1980’s represent a marquee period of movie classics. Many offer axioms that can offer surprisingly useful guides for life and—perhaps—for higher education. Examples include:

Another favorite 80s movie is Say Anything (1989) where our hero Lloyd Dobler is authentic to a fault, wears his heart on his sleeve, and embodies the axiom: “If you have to say it, then it probably isn’t true.” Lloyd does not have to tell you that he is a good man, he just is and it shows.

As I said, these axioms are useful guides and it is this last axiom that came to mind after I read the September round of blogs for Insights & Outlooks where Dr. José Luis Cruz wrote: “Accreditors don’t serve students.” I was struck by this comment and in response I feel like I have to say in defense of my profession and my brethren, “Yes, we accreditors do serve students.” In my own experience I feel like I have spent the last 24 years in accreditation with the exclusive aim of helping students get a quality education. I constantly hear accreditation Commissioners say, “How will this impact students?” as they make accreditation decisions. I suspect that if you were to poll the thousands of folks who volunteer their time, energy, effort, and expertise in the accreditation enterprise they too would say their chief aim is to serve students.

But on the other hand, I was also struck when recently one of my peers said to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity after some intense questioning that the accrediting agency is “ truly student-centered.” I came away thinking that if it were so evident, then why did it have to be said?

There is no doubt in my mind that accreditors serve students, but being “student-centered” in not necessarily a quality that is associated with accreditation outside of accreditation circles. So, I have to acknowledge that simply saying it is so is not enough — accreditors can do more to “be” student-centered and to make that characteristic highly associated with the accreditation process.

So, what does it mean for accreditors to be student-centered? In one way, it means being more “intentional” about measuring how well colleges meet their missions. I say this because I have yet to read a college mission statement that proclaims, “We aim to be the best mediocre school there is by putting students second.” Rather, student success is almost always at the core of a school’s mission and as this is the case, accreditors need to be more intentional about asking schools to actually show how they are meeting that student-centric mission.

A foundational element of the accreditation enterprise involves an introspective journey of self-discovery. Accreditors ask institutions as part of this self-evaluation process to describe their mission, programs, policies, services, and goals. But it may be useful for accreditors to take that same journey and to ask of themselves: “Is our accreditation process really student-centered or do we just assume that the accreditation process ultimately benefits students?” In theory, the accreditation process is designed to ensure students receive a quality education, but creating a truly student-centered accreditation process means asking institutions to focus on and to show how every program, policy, or process impacts, drives, and supports student success. This requires intentionally evolving the accreditation process to reframe the self-evaluation paradigm moving beyond institutional-centered inquiry and moving toward a central theme of students and student achievement.

This type of evolution for accreditors could also help to work with and improve federal policy for the recognition of accrediting agencies. As it may be that federal policy has an expectation that the use of federal “student” financial assistance be tied to actual results with regard to positive student outcomes — however we may choose to define those outcomes — then the federal recognition process could ask accreditors to better show how their standards and processes drive or impact those outcomes. Currently, while there is an allusion in federal regulations to student success being a metric that accreditors are to be concerned about, there is neither a clear sense of federal expectations nor a level playing field in this regard. The goal for federal policy should be to develop and commit to establishing clear expectations that will help to shift accreditor focus to student outcomes in ways that are flexible, meaningful, broadly applicable, and better understood by institutions, students, and the public.

Admittedly, accreditors have a ways to go in terms of showing how we do place our focus on students such that it is a known quality. To give us guidance in this regard, I will end with a quote from one of the two great philosophers of the 80s movie era, Yoda, Jedi Master: “Do or do not. There is no try.” For accreditors on a quest for more evident student centeredness, just do and be and others will know and see.