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When Schools Dump Their Accreditor

I recently attended several of the accreditation conferences on the Fall conference circuit and spent time learning about current trends and thinking from the perspective of both accreditors and accredited institutions and programs. It was clear that this statement is as true as it was a couple of years ago:

“No one really likes accreditation but no one knows what else to do.”
--Kevin Carey, New America Foundation via Inside Higher Ed

While this may still be true, I believe there’s been some change. I’ve seen a shift in the conversation and a new motivation to understand the objectives of accreditation and to utilize the process to create value for everyone involved. I’m excited about this new narrative in the industry, but I also know many working in the field don’t feel the same enthusiasm or see a way to fix accreditation. As we enter a new year, I can’t help but reflect on 2017 and the changes I saw around the perception and perceived necessity of accreditation. 

In mid-2017, The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University elected to drop their specialized accreditor, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC). Even though this happened months ago, I continue to think about the decision and what it means for the future of accreditation.

I previously served as an Assistant Academic Dean, so the principles, process and complexities of accreditation are all too familiar to me. I believe accreditation has become more than it was intended to be- more lengthy, more expensive, more cumbersome and more restrictive. I can understand Medill’s choice to abandon their specialized accreditor and create their own process, however I think the decision and resulting consequences warrant discussion and reflection from everyone involved in education and accreditation.

Medill’s situation is unique from so many other programs and universities because of their prestige. This fact is important because their prestige among journalism schools gives them the luxury of being able to essentially fire their accreditor without significant fear that their students will no longer be able to get jobs. Not many schools have that luxury. Although there are some opportunities that will no longer be available to Medill students, namely the Hearst Journalism Awards, the stamp of approval from ACEJMC hardly makes a difference because of Medill’s stand alone reputation.

For schools that don’t have such prestigious and powerful reputations, but are offering valuable programs to students, specialized accreditation is vital when recruiting students and helping them find jobs after graduation.

Imagine if this trend continued in a larger way. If schools abandon specialized accreditation, employers have no way of measuring and verifying that students are properly and thoroughly trained in their field. Employers would need to accept responsibility for checking students’ credentials on their own, which is problematic and unlikely.

I worked at the state level in Missouri earlier in my career and they did away with their state nursing licensure program during my time there. The state doesn’t want to be involved in inspecting schools; it’s costly, time-consuming, and they lack the expertise to thoroughly evaluate. Accepting the certificate from the school’s nursing accreditor allows for a much smoother process for everyone. Nursing is, of course, a more technical program than journalism, but in any field students need to supply proof of their experience and skills to either future employers or institutions, if they are seeking a higher degree. Without accreditation there must be some alternative, which needs to be provided by the student and accepted by whatever company or institution to which they are applying. It doesn’t seem fair to put this responsibility onto the students and employers when the schools set the curriculum and requirements for the degree.

In a perfect world institutions and accreditors would view one another as partners. Certainly accreditors should be listening to and learning from their universities, rather than slowing them down, and universities should make this easier by communicating with their accreditor and finding ways to improve the current system. I worry that it has become too easy for institutions to blame their accreditor for hampering innovation when there are other factors at play. Working with an outside organization can be tricky, but there are ways to work together and innovate together, as opposed to walking away and leaving students with no choice in the matter. How is it not a disservice to students to cut them off from certain opportunities or ignore what the industry says is truly important for students to learn and know?

Some accreditors and institutions are already working together to create different pathways and standards, so we know it can be done. For example, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is supportive of University of Michigan’s experiments with the MicroMasters program, which allows individuals to take university courses online and even use the credit as part of a traditional on-campus Masters program, if they choose to apply and are admitted.

I don’t think accreditation is going away. The spirit and value of accreditation is still important. The intentional reflection and self-study that’s at the core of this process is the best way to evaluate and determine if an institution or program is accomplishing what they set out to accomplish. I’m motivated by helping schools focus on the areas that create value through the process. Helping institutions stop and reflect, demonstrate goals where they are doing great things and where they may be falling short, feels important to me. I think self-identifying and self-awareness is crucial for all institutions and I believe accreditors should hold schools accountable to reaching their goals for their programs and for their students.

Since accreditation probably isn’t going anywhere, I hope we can apply more of a developmental evaluation approach in the future. I believe accreditation should always focus on evaluation for the purpose of developing and improving, rather than compliance box-checking. The developmental approach focuses on meeting the institution where they are and developing a plan for intentional improvement. The compliance approach is more about subtracting points where a school isn’t doing well, which creates fear and doesn’t add much value for the institution moving forward.

Using the developmental approach is tricky though, because the accreditation process is so high stakes. If a school isn’t doing well, how do we use the developmental approach while still making sure students are receiving the education and experience they were promised? I think many schools may feel they don’t have the freedom to use a more developmental perspective because they worry it’ll mean they don’t get reaccredited. We’ve essentially created a situation in which institutions are groomed to ‘teach to the test’ and follow standards exactly, for fear of not passing, rather than focusing on improving learning, innovating and trying new things.

The only way to change the accreditation environment is to act as partners and work together. I believe it’s up to the schools to participate and drive innovation if they feel their accreditor isn’t keeping up. Organize those conversations and suggest ways the standards could be more flexible and less prescriptive. Welcome changes to the standards, rather than dreading them. The accreditors are likely making changes in an effort to stay current and promote innovation. There are educators on both sides of the table, at accreditors and at institutions, and we should all have the same focus on what’s best for the students and how we can help them. Let’s keep our shared goal in mind and collaborate to shape the future of accreditation as best we can. It really is up to all of us.

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