Value, Accreditation, Accountability: A Dispatch from the Field

The prospect – some say threat –  of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) has animated many lively discussions regarding the value of higher education, the integrity of the accreditation process, and the effectiveness of the existing accountability framework. With the possibility of a vote on reauthorization this summer, here is one perspective from the field on each of these topics.

Value: There’s an emerging narrative, based on public polling, that the perceived value of higher education is at an all-time low. This narrative is sometimes weaponized to support arguments in favor of policies such as merging the U.S. Department of Education with the Department of Labor, or to further scale back already thinning public investment. But the narrative is at odds with the lived experience at most public colleges and universities, especially those that serve large numbers of low-income students and students of color. Indeed, their stakeholders perceive the value of higher education not just as a necessity for employment, but also for its enduring personal value. And employers routinely cite the need for graduates with strong critical thinking, communication, and information literacy skills.

Regardless of the political or economic climate, educational attainment is the one thing that can never be taken away from individuals. Many institutions, like The City University of New York (CUNY), are nationally recognized as top engines of social and economic mobility and important anchor institutions in the communities they serve. Policymakers concerned with “value” would do well to invest more in institutions with the ability to help students rise and achieve strong outcomes, rather than instinctively looking elsewhere for “disruptive innovations” that are often far more disruptive than innovative.

Accreditation: In thinking about accreditation reform, policymakers should keep in mind that accreditors don’t serve students. Institutions serve students. I have been involved in over 35 regional and specialized accreditation efforts throughout my career. What I have learned is that accreditation, as a process, is only as good as the people involved and the standards in place. The process works well (sometimes extraordinarily so) when institutions take the process seriously and are intentional about using it to reflect on how well they are advancing their missions. Those who see accreditation as an opportunity to best bridge the gap between their current state of affairs and their professed aspirations learn a great deal from it.

But the process is ineffective when institutions and/or the accreditation teams do not put in a good faith effort to critically examine the institution’s work. And it works terribly when institutions and their accreditors have perverse, profit-driven incentives to game the process. The takeaway? Accreditation reform should lead to improved organizational effectiveness for the institutions that take the process seriously. Those that do not put forth a sincere effort, or that make a mockery of the system should face substantial penalties.

Accountability: Three quick thoughts on accountability. First, equity must matter in accountability metrics. There should be minimum standards for the enrollment of Pell students, graduation rates, and loan repayment—for all students and by race and income. We need to couple increased expectations with focused investments and provide time for campuses to improve before any sanctions attach. Second, a reauthorized HEA should provide focused investments in building the capacity of colleges to use evidence-based innovation, particularly for the 2- and 4-year public institutions that serve the majority of America’s students. Third, for any accountability framework to work we need the federal government to be unwavering in its commitment to protecting students and taxpayers from fraud and abuse.

An example of what not to do? Propose changes to current work-study program allocations that would result in CUNY being the biggest loser and Ashford University, a long-troubled for-profit, being among the biggest winners. Another? Reinstating recognition to the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. The bottom line is that for an accountability system to work, it must first be credible: reward those that are doing a good job for all students, help those that need to up their game and are willing to do so, and punish those that prey on students and abuse our social investments.

In short, designing policy informed by the realities of the field is the best bet for enacting policy that improves practice.

Dr. Jose Luis Cruz is the President of Lehman College of The City University of New York.