Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Would competition among regional accreditors diminish the quality of American higher education?

Posted on February 27, 2020 at 11:35 AM

Originally posted 2/21/2020


First, my apologies to anyone who had trouble accessing my February 18, 2020, blog post on the prospect of regional accreditors’ boundaries evaporating. My website hosting service chose that day for a glitch that made my entire blog vanish. I appreciate everyone’s patience while the service restored my blog.


I also appreciate the very thoughtful replies I’ve received to that blog post. Most of the comments were on the last paragraph, in which I speculated that competition among the regionals might be healthy and lead to differentiation in ways that better serve the United States’ diverse array of higher education institutions. Some people worried that competition among the regionals will lead to a race to the bottom, with everyone moving to what they perceive as the least-rigorous accreditor.


I truly don’t see that happening (at least, not en masse) for several reasons.


First, regionally accredited institutions already have that choice, and they’re not going there. They can move to one of the national accreditors, which some perceive as less rigorous than the regionals. (They don’t have the same standards for general education, for example.) In fact, the opposite is happening: institutions with national accreditation regularly apply for regional accreditation. Why do they do this, considering all the time, work and money involved in complying with more extensive or rigorous standards? It’s because U.S. regional accreditation is viewed as the international gold standard of higher education quality assurance. Today some employers and graduate schools require applicants to hold a degree from a regionally accredited institution. I could see them someday saying applicants must hold a degree from an institution accredited by a shorter list of the regionals: those that continue to be highly regarded for their high standards.


Second, we’ve already seen the choice-among-accreditors model play out successfully. There are three business program accreditors: AACSB, ACBSP, and IACBE. They each aim to serve different kinds of business programs at different kinds of institutions. An institution that doesn’t qualify for one accreditor doesn’t have to try to force the square peg of its program into the round hole of that accreditor’s requirements; it can choose another accreditor that’s a better fit with the program and institution.


Third, accreditation standards are set by the member institutions, and there are plenty of institutions that wouldn’t want to be associated with a race to the bottom. They want their accreditation to be evidence of their quality.


Finally, as Joan Hawthorne pointed out, changing accreditors is a long, hard, expensive process. No institution is going to do it unless it feels it has a darned good reason. Yes, there already is some accreditation shopping—by state as well as by accreditor—by some newer, non-traditional institutions. But worst players here, such as diploma mills, are institutions without regional accreditation. I think the regionals are getting better all the time at dealing with institutions that try to shop among the regionals and eventually squeak by one.


In my last blog post, I speculated a bit on how the regionals might eventually differentiate themselves. Let me get more specific here.


1. I think one accreditor would eventually have standards that emphasize the old inputs accreditation model--endowment size, faculty credentials, student selectivity, research dollars, etc.—and downplay the outcomes—especially student learning outcomes—that most regionals now emphasize. I’ll refrain from snarky comments about the institutions that would migrate to this accreditor.

2. I think we need a regional accreditor whose standards are a better fit for newer institutions with non-traditional models of instructional delivery, governance, and general education. I’ve worked with many of these institutions as they seek regional accreditation, and they’re often square pegs struggling to fit themselves into the round holes of regional standards. I wouldn’t want to see less rigorous standards, just standards that are more flexible without adversely impacting educational quality and institutional viability and integrity.

3. I would love to see one regional accreditor REALLY emphasize student learning and success (more than student learning assessment!), including a requirement to use research-informed strategies to promote student learning and success. I fantasize that this would become the truly prestigious regional, with students flocking to its institutions, because they know they’ll get great educations there.

4. You know those students who just want their faculty member to tell them exactly what they want to see in an assignment, so the students don’t have to think on their own? Guess what—many institutions want the same thing from their accreditors! Some would be delighted with an accreditor whose processes consist of filling out some straightforward forms and submitting them along with some documentation. So maybe one accreditor would evolve into the checkbox accreditor—the one focused on compliance much more than improvement.

5. Yes, there would probably be one accreditor who would be perceived as the easy accreditor. Some institutions would move there, and they’ll get what they deserve in terms of reputation.

6. And, yes, one or two might eventually go out of business.


But, as I emphasized in my last post, I don’t see any of this happening soon. The new USED regulations remove some legal barriers to this evolution but not the logistical barriers.


Categories: Accreditation