The Changing Context for Accreditation

A hallmark of U.S. higher education in the 21st century is the enormous diversity of its institutions, their missions, and the students they serve. Common across this diversity, however, is a widespread understanding that higher education represents both a public good and a private benefit. According to this understanding, higher education fosters individual development and serves the broader needs of the society and nation. Higher education has created the conditions for improving quality of life, solving problems, and enabling hope, which are essential to supporting economic prosperity and sustaining democracy in the United States. Accreditation is committed to the application of standards of performance, while affirming that high-quality education, irrespective of the different purposes of individual institutions, is in itself a contribution to the public good.

Accreditation has changed in form and substance as it has adapted to continuous social changes, increased global interdependence, and dramatic developments in information and communication technologies. The revisions to the Standards and institutional review process (IRP) described in this 2013 Handbook have occurred within the context of these factors and reflect accreditation’s responsibility to assure the public that institutions act with integrity, yield high-quality educational outcomes, and are committed to continuous improvement. Like earlier editions, the 2013 Handbook is the culmination of years of exploration and commitment on the part of institutions and stakeholders from across the WSCUC region.

The 2001 Handbook represented a significant break with the past, updating the formula for the review process and yielding a more engaged and creative endeavor. In doing so, it was a product of its times. The late 1990s was a period in which higher education embraced many important innovations—active and student-centered pedagogies, an explosion of educational technology, new roles for faculty, and new organizational forms. The approach to accreditation represented by the 2001 Handbook and the 2008 Handbook revisions reflected these conditions by creating a set of standards and an institutional review process that put teaching and learning at the center through the core commitment to educational effectiveness. At the same time, institutions were encouraged to harness accreditation as a means to advance their own goals and priorities.

The 2013 Handbook preserves and incorporates these values, even as additional factors in the operating environment for higher education demand attention. Students and their success continue to stand at the center of concerns about higher education accreditation. Thus accreditation seeks to establish standards and measurements of quality that ensure that students earn degrees in a timely manner, and that those degrees have demonstrable meaning and currency within the society at large. That meaning should also extend to graduates’ ability to be engaged citizens and to obtain productive employment.

A new context for higher education has formed the backdrop for the 2013 Handbook. Colleges and universities have been under increasing pressure to become more accountable for student academic achievement; to be more transparent in reporting the results of accreditation; and to demonstrate their contribution to the public good. Accounting for quality is a matter of public trust, given the billions of dollars government provides higher education through direct investment in institutions, federal and state financial aid for students, and tax exemptions for public and non-profit institutions. These factors lie behind the Commission’s decision to rebalance the dual role of accreditation to support both public accountability and institutional improvement.

Another critical factor is the deteriorating fiscal environment within which colleges and universities must operate. Diminishing public funding for higher education and escalating operating costs have put pressure on public and private institutions alike. The 2013 Handbook responds to financial concerns by establishing a more focused review process that shortens the time required for reaccreditation, while still providing adaptability in the review process.

With these revisions, the Commission calls upon institutions to take the next step on the assessment journey: moving from a focus on creating assessment infrastructure and processes to a focus on results and the findings about the quality of learning that assessment generates. Institutions are also asked to move from productive internal conversations about improving learning to engaging more deeply with other institutions and higher education organizations.