Jamienne S. Studley
February 17, 2022
Accreditation is stepping up its game in an evolving higher education landscape in ways that may surprise you, writes Jamienne Studley.
It’s no surprise that accreditation is misunderstood. The accreditation system exists precisely to allow for tailored, predictive judgments applying broad standards to infinitely varied institutions. Add multiple accrediting agencies with different approaches, terminology and mandates, with some accreditors evaluating whole institutions and others specific programs, and it’s a recipe for the description “black box.”
I receive so many questions about accreditation—variations of “really, an accreditor does that?”—that it’s time to share some facts about accreditation that may be surprising to many. Some are long-standing practices, while others are recent developments. Some are common across accreditation agencies, while others are agency-specific. Focusing on the agency I lead, WASC Senior College and University Commission, reveals how accreditation can focus on equity, outcomes, student success and institutional risk monitoring in a new landscape of national scope and innovation.
Student outcomes. Calls abound for accreditors to consider outcomes, evidence and measures of institutional and student success—as one observer has put it, to “devote less attention to process and more attention to results.” Indeed, I issued some of those calls myself when I chaired the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, the federal body that advises the secretary of education on the recognition of accrediting agencies, and when I worked on higher education policy at the U.S. Department of Education.
Message received: results matter. Allow me to introduce you to WSCUC’s public Key Indicators Dashboard (affectionately known as KID). In August, WSCUC posted a wealth of data by institution about student demographics and student finances, including median student debt levels, the percentages of students receiving Pell Grants, graduation and retention rates, and postgraduation outcomes. Disaggregation of student data by race and ethnicity, first required by WSCUC in 2000 to support equity priorities, is now comprehensive. Outcomes and trends are displayed in the context of a range of WSCUC and national medians.