Necessity to Invention: Beyond the “Toggle Switch” Approach to Accreditation

As the curtain raised, the theater went pitch black with only the light from the stage casting dimly into the audience. Patrons found themselves fumbling in the darkness trying to read their playbills and the latecomers interrupted the mood, unable to find their seats. In 1896, Granville Woods invented the “Safety Dimmer” so theater patrons—himself included—would not have to sit in complete darkness to enjoy a performance.

The invention of the dimmer switch brought about a differentiated way for us to see objects. One of the major criticisms of accreditation is that it is like a toggle switch: it’s either on or it’s off. There is certainly some truth to this complaint, but it is not simply either sitting in the dark or under bright light. This criticism fails to recognize that there is differentiation in accreditation. For some institutions, there may be no need for special monitoring or reporting, for other institutions that extra monitoring may be a necessity, and for others, the need may still arise to put limitations in place with regard to student enrollment and new programs.

The point of the analogy is not to suggest that more or less light should be cast on the accreditation process and the types of actions taken by accreditors, but instead that gradations exist in this process and that accreditors can better show those distinctions. The need for some confidentiality in the accreditation process should not mean that accreditors cannot better inform stakeholders about the status of an institution other than simply “accredited or not.” That is far too simplistic for such a complex and nuanced endeavor filled with gradations.

To that end, I believe we need to replace our basic accreditation toggle switch for a dimmer switch that will more clearly illuminate for students and other stakeholders the accreditation status or quality level of an institution.

Differentiation in accreditation can be expressed in several ways – though I am not necessarily advocating a platinum, gold, silver, and bronze level accreditation system. But, certainly, accreditors can express status based on the types of actions taken or the level of performance an institution demonstrates through the accreditation process.

The Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC), for example, has criteria for a “School of Excellence” distinction for institutions that perform particularly well through the accreditation process and demonstrate above average student achievement outcomes. The School of Excellence award also comes with an extra year of accreditation, as ACCSC prefers to use a carrot to drive better performance rather than a stick. That extra year of accreditation also shows a higher level of confidence in the school and again serves as a differentiating characteristic that can be highlighted for a school. On the other end of the spectrum, accreditors could also use indicators such as “Accredited-Probation Status,” “Accredited-Warning Status,” “Accredited-Reporting Status,” “Accredited” with an easy-to-find explanation of each of those statuses and hyperlinks to where additional useful information can be found.

Differentiation also shows promise as a tool for establishing eligibility for federal financial aid. The historic role of accreditors is to work with institutions through peer review and self-evaluation as a means to nurture and drive continuous improvement—not to serve as a “gatekeeper” to student financial aid funding programs or to “dis-accredit” institutions. As accreditors, we want to work with schools to improve because this most benefits students. However, those who see accreditation as only a gatekeeper and thus beholden to government and the public to fulfill that role solely, only judge accreditation at how well an agency does in holding institutions accountable and in how many instances schools lose accreditation.

Differentiated levels of accreditation could help to fulfill both the continuous improvement role of accreditation as well as the gatekeeping function and could allow institutions to move in and out of eligibility for funding programs.

For example, if accreditors could establish something like “Level-1” and “Level-2” accreditation which are fluid, then accreditation status could move between levels as a school’s performance may dictate. In this example, Level-1 accreditation would establish eligibility for federal funding programs but if performance drops to Level-2 accreditation, then financial aid would be altered, limited, or suspended for new students. Only a total loss of accreditation would cut off financial aid entirely.

This may be a far better approach for students and taxpayers as well as institutions dealing with the high stakes, all-or-nothing environment in which we currently operate. It would signal to students that there are performance issues that the school is working through which may or may not influence student enrollment decisions. Title IV federal student aid programs would have to recognize and allow for this fluidity and to essentially install its own “dimmer switch.”

Granville Woods invented the Safety Dimmer to bring about an improved user experience. Change happens because need happens—and we have a need in accreditation to think about change and reform with a focus on student success. I think we can agree that the need for ensuring high quality student-centric education is certainly more important than a night at the theatre and as such worthy of our best efforts. Not all institutions perform equally and the different levels of performance at institutions can be better expressed through the quality assurance component of the accreditation process. Accreditors should show those gradations concordant to how well an institution performs relative to quality standards and student achievement outcomes. We have the need, now let’s take the next step toward invention and innovation.

Dr. Michale McComis is the executive director and CEO of the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.