It took a long time to redefine the purposes of college and university accreditation, but we are doing it. The “we” are not the accreditation agencies or the major professional associations that speak for higher education. The change agents are a loose coalition of state and federal government agencies, some members of Congress, and the media that report on higher education, especially the issue of student debt.
Members of the coalition are not always on the same page and they don’t always get the issues quite right. But overall, they have raised critical questions about the impact of a college education on individual lives and on society. They have asked for metrics to understand value added. They have questioned Congressional legislation that decades ago enabled regional accrediting agencies to be the gate-keeper for billions of federal dollars invested in higher education.
I hope that we have finally reached a turning point in the history of American higher education. If we try at all, we should be able to figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time. Classic, historical accreditation based on peer review of academic programs is as valuable now as it has ever been. Done judiciously and without bureaucratic trappings, it enables campus leaders to benefit from the insight of qualified and unbiased peers; it builds collegial networks of people who share expertise and passion for specific segments of the academic enterprise. And it need not be expensive.
Accountability for the expenditure of federal dollars and consumer protection measures are not only valuable, they are appropriate to the times, and politically necessary.
Oversight for purposes of fiscal accountability and consumer protection can be done in a sensible manner that avoids excessive regulation; they might be done by random spot-checking of a group of institutions in any given fiscal year. Oversight cannot be a collegial, peer-review process, but it can be a civilized and transparent process. The ideal conduit? Probably NACIQI, which is already a politically appointed board advisory to the U.S. Secretary of Education.