Can Accreditation Make a Difference?

The last decade of discussion of higher education has occasionally addressed the role of the accrediting bodies for higher education institutions.  There are two types of accrediting bodies in the US.  The first accredits institutions.  The second accredits programs such as engineering, business, and public health.  Criticism of both types has opened discussion about whether accrediting bodies make any real difference to students and employers in terms of quality.  This is essentially a question of their efficacy.

That is why it was heartening to see the changes under consideration by one accrediting body – AACSB International, the business accrediting association.  Following a practice that was used when I chaired AACSB a decade ago, AACSB’s leadership established a Blue Ribbon Committee to review all aspects of its accreditation processes and standards.  The Committee unveiled the changes it is considering at its annual meeting this week in San Diego California.

Among them were several proposals that recognize the transformation that education is undergoing; others, if they survive ensuing discussions among member schools, seem destined to address some of the criticisms of accrediting bodies by make business accreditation more meaningful and efficacious to prospective students and their employers.

The proposed changes that bring accreditation into the 21st century include examining more directly distance-learning alternatives that have been common among for-profit schools and increasingly so among traditional schools as well.  Another change would be to look at the role that non-teaching staff play in the education process.  Eschewed immediately by some in the audience, this change recognizes that the real growth area in employees on most campuses has not been among teachers and professors but among staff.  Staff increasingly plays roles that make them essential and complementary to teachers in the learning experience of students.

But the heart of some of the most important changes addresses the efficacy of the accreditation process.  Almost unnecessary, some might say, is discussion of assurance in the integrity of the information provided by the school to the accrediting body.  Another proposed change increases the emphasis on the stated mission of a business school; this change asks that schools go beyond mere statements of mission to ones that are both meaningful and distinctive.  Still another change, consistent with the growing role of distance and non-traditional learning was the elevation of the importance of student engagement, especially in distance learning.

Assurance of learning or outcomes assessment, as it is often called, was given new attention that also raises the potential efficacy of accreditation.  The proposed focus of changes will be on tying more closely assurance of learning to the curriculum improvement process, including assessing not just whether anticipated outcomes were achieved but whether the intended curriculum is the right curriculum – presumably for the jobs for which it is intend to prepare graduates.

Raising the quality of higher education is at the heart of our economic prosperity.  It was encouraging to see AACSB’s Blue Ribbon Committee’s report on its deliberations.


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