By design, accrediting agencies play a range of roles with the colleges and universities they oversee: partner in institutional improvement, convener of a community of interest around issues of quality, and watchdog deputized by the federal government to ensure the institutions are deserving of federal funds. Those roles sometimes conflict. When accreditors appear to put their improvement mission first, advocates for students sometimes accuse them of going soft. When they prioritize accountability, their own members say they’re overstepping their bounds.
For the last 20 years or so, the WASC Senior College and University Commission has walked that tightrope more than most. A decade ago, leaders of the agency — which accredits four-year institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands (and has recently taken advantage of a change in federal law that allows it to accredit institutions in other parts of the U.S.) — promoted a broad array of changes aimed at responding to criticism that accreditors were not transparent enough and focused on institutional outcomes. It became the first of the major institutional accreditors to make public all its “action letters” and reports of visiting teams. Opposition from some of its members, though, prevented it from requiring institutions to compare themselves to peer colleges on their graduates’ proficiency in a set of academic skills.
A few years later, the accreditor (now known as WSCUC) instituted a dashboard that provided a fuller picture of colleges’ success (or lack of it) in helping students complete their educational goals, broken down by race, family income and other factors to help identify potential gaps in equity.