This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.
In a book titled "Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education," editors Susan D. Phillips and Kevin Kinser write, "A significant drumbeat is heard: Are accreditors doing their job? Can they do the job they have been given? Should they even have been given that job? If not, then who?" Phillips and Kinser attempt to shed light on this complex issue with a four-part collection of essays from the perspectives of accreditors, institutions, policymakers, and consumers. Contributing authors from each of these areas deliver diverse and contrasting views on the scope, responsibility, and public expectations of accreditation in U.S. higher education. The book "brings together viewpoints that are not often in the same conversation," making it an important resource for decision makers looking to identify and address problems with the current quality assurance system, said Tiangeng Lu, who read the book and shared her unbiased opinions of its content at the request of NASFAA. What follows are her takeaways, thoughts, and reflections.
Higher education accreditation is a "pivotal and contested space," increasingly criticized by consumers, the media, and lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle (p. 6). National headlines and legislative proposals challenging the current accreditation system underscore rising public concern over the quality students and taxpayers receive in return for their substantial investment in postsecondary education. "Accreditation on the Edge" editors Susan D. Phillips and Kevin Kinser write, "A significant drumbeat is heard: Are accreditors doing their job? Can they do the job they have been given? Should they even have been given that job? If not, then who?" (p. 2).
Phillips and Kinser attempt to shed light on this complex issue with a four-part collection of essays from the perspectives of accreditors, institutions, policymakers, and consumers. Contributing authors from each of these areas deliver diverse and contrasting views on the scope, responsibility, and public expectations of accreditation in U.S. higher education. The book "brings together viewpoints that are not often in the same conversation" (p. 8), making it an important resource for decision makers looking to identify and address problems with the current quality assurance system.
Although the contributors offer divergent viewpoints, they agree that higher education accreditation is "on the edge" — that is, that quality assurance in higher education is not working properly. In each chapter, stakeholders from different sides of the accreditation issue identify and analyze challenges in the accreditation system from their unique vantage points.
On the surface, accreditation is a complicated policy issue of safeguarding federal funds and ensuring the quality of higher education. At its core, however, quality assurance involves many smaller, independent problems, such as the distribution of responsibilities between the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and accreditors, and the relationship between accreditors and their member institutions. These problems are not isolated from each other; attempts to address one problem will affect other problems, making it nearly impossible to find a one-size-fits-all solution.
The book’s multi-faceted view of what different stakeholders see as the appropriate roles of accreditors makes it particularly insightful. Authors with backgrounds as regional, program-specific, and distance education accreditors contributed to Part 1. They describe accreditors’ primary responsibilities as peer review and quality improvement but not necessarily as gatekeepers for access to Title IV federal student aid funds. Institutional accreditors stress that they should not be viewed as consumer protection agencies; rather, their priority is the "quality of [higher] education that will enrich society and the individuals within it" (p. 15). Program-specific accreditors emphasize that they have little to do with the Title IV programs or the school closures that are often at the center of debates on quality assurance.
In Part II, institutions, represented by authors from two higher education associations and a university president, express negative views of accreditation. They emphasize that the process is time-consuming and expensive for institutions and believe it deters innovation. The first chapter criticizes the authority that accreditors enjoy under the current legislative structure and its consequences to the operations of postsecondary institutions. The second chapter examines how accreditations have stifled or encouraged innovative business models at three institutions. The third chapter explores the accreditation aspects of ED’s Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships, which ED launched in 2015 "to accelerate and evaluate innovation through partnerships between colleges and universities and non-traditional providers of education."
Part III focuses on the viewpoints of policymakers. It opens with an examination of accreditation from the triad governance structure of ED, accreditors, states, and others who impact U.S. higher education. The second chapter cites empirical evidence to illustrate the absence of minimal performance standards in higher education. The third chapter advocates for more commitment by accreditors, and the final chapter expands the discussion of accreditation to the global higher education arena.
Researchers and policy analysts from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the American Institute for Research, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities present the viewpoints of consumers in Part IV. These authors express concerns similar to those of the institutional authors in Part II. The employer and student perspective emphasizes preparing students with the basic skills needed for employment, allowing students to gain an adequate return on their investment for college. In general, consumers expect accreditation to provide information on the quality of education students will receive.
From the contrasting views on accreditation in the different narratives, readers can distill the tensions between the stakeholders. For example, policymakers and consumers tend to rely on quantitative data to determine the quality of programs and institutions. However, accreditors strongly oppose the quantitative, data-driven evaluation of higher education because they believe numbers (e.g., graduation rates) are not the best indicator of institutional performance. For example, a six-year graduation rate of 25% has different implications for different institutions based on each institution’s mission, population served, and other factors. Therefore, a seemingly transparent database maintained by ED may cause misunderstandings about the true quality of education offered by an institution. In particular, authors in the accreditors’ section expressed concerns about the federal government gathering data on how many adverse actions an accreditor takes against institutions because it implies that the more adverse actions accreditors take, the better they are doing their jobs.
The book also reveals tensions over the extent to which accreditors should serve as gatekeepers for access to Title IV funds. This demonstrates a core problem in regulating quality assurance in higher education: differing perceptions and expectations of accreditors. The government, institutions, and students expect accreditors to exercise authority, provide institutional performance data, and standardize quality criteria. However, accreditors may not see themselves with these responsibilities.
More importantly, unlike government contractors that perform governmental functions with financial subsidies, the government does not pay accreditors to do so. Unfortunately, the accreditor-affiliated authors did not emphasize the absence of financial incentives to perform government duties; including this might have given readers a better understanding of accreditors’ roles and challenges.
Although this collection of essays attempts to present a whole picture of how accreditation works in the context of higher education quality assurance, the book would be more comprehensive if state-level accreditors, as one of the triad members, had contributed to the discussion. In addition, the book would benefit from voices from the for-profit sector of higher education, as many stakeholders believe these institutions are a major problem of the accreditation system and the Title IV financial aid programs. Without these voices, the discussion lacks important insights.
Overall, "Accreditation on the Edge" is an informative and insightful book that will be especially valuable to U.S. higher education stakeholders, as it illuminates the perspectives of others in the field. It shows agreement among accreditors, institutions, policymakers, and consumers that the accreditation system needs improvement, but it also reveals a lack of consensus on how to achieve this. Given conflicting priorities and interests as reflected throughout the book, it is clear that finding easy solutions that address every stakeholder’s concerns is unlikely.
While insightful as a qualitative examination of the issue, for the most part the book does not attempt to support or reject the contributors’ claims using empirical evidence. This book may, however, attract scholars’ attention to examine the validity of these claims. More empirical evidence would be helpful for decision makers.
"Accreditation on the Edge: Challenging Quality Assurance in Higher Education," by Susan D. Kinser and Kevin Kinser, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, pp. 296.
Tiangeng Lu is a Ph.D. candidate and adjunct professor of public policy at the School of Public Affairs of Penn State University. She specializes in policy theories, education policies, and national security policies. Before joining Penn State, Tiangeng worked for the United Nations where she participated in research projects of counterterrorism and global youth development. Earlier, Tiangeng served in the managerial positions in a postsecondary institution in New York, where she worked closely with the marginalized population and the international student community in the urban area.
Publication Date: 4/7/2020