By Andrew Gillen
The world of higher education is abuzz with the news that a
An Evidence-Based Decision?
According to the Chronicle, "Ralph A. Wolff [president of WASC]... said the extensive process was meant to provide an evidence-based reason for the association's decision on Ashford."
That certainly sounds reassuring. And WASC is leading the way on transparency, publicly releasing documents relating to the decision (though the posted versions of the documents are non-searchable, a significant barrier to actually making use of the documents).
One might expect to see some evidence about how
- Student retention and completion, methods of tracking student progress, and support for student success (Criteria for Review (CFR) 2.6, 2.10-2.14);
- Alignment of resource allocations with educational purposes and objectives (CFR 3.5);
- A sufficient core of full-time faculty members, and a faculty model that provides for faculty development and oversight of academic policies and ensures the integrity and continuity of academic programs (CFRs 3.2, 3.11);
- An effective system of program review (CFR 2.7);
- An effective system for assessing and monitoring student learning and assuring academic rigor (CFRs 2.1, 2.2., 2.6., 4.4); and
- An empowered and independent governing board and a clear and acceptable relationship with the parent company (CFRs 1.6, 3.9, 3.10)
And here they are translated into the categories of criteria they are evaluating:
- Outcome, Process, Input
All that really matters is whether Ashford is educating students or not. But accreditors don't monitor that, instead they focus on inputs, processes and governance. It would be one thing if there was one set of inputs, one set of processes, and one governance structure that was known to produce strong educational outcomes. In that case, basing accreditation on those inputs, processes and governance would be acceptable. But there is no one set of inputs, processes, and governance structure that are guaranteed to produce the best educational outcomes, so it is inappropriate to base accreditation decisions on them. Bluntly stated, WASC's (and other accreditors') standards on inputs, processes and governance structure are neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure adequate educational outcomes. Yet they constitute the bulk of the reason for denying Ashford accreditation.
Conflict of Interest
There is also an unavoidable conflict of interest when it comes to accreditation. Of the 26 individuals that apparently decided this case, 20 were affiliated with another university (3 more were WASC employees). Given that the "disruptive innovation" of online education is pretty much the only thing that can threaten traditional universities and that Ashford had a large online element, those 20 individuals had an inevitable interest in denying Ashford accreditation. It is certainly possible that Ashford doesn't deserve accreditation, but a decision from a body with such clear conflicts of interest casts doubt on the validity of the decision.
According to Inside Higher Ed, one of the reasons for the denial of accreditation was that, in Wolff's words, "This level of attrition is, on its face, not acceptable."
Ashford's six-year graduation rate, 34%, is pretty atrocious. But if this is
why they were denied accreditation by WASC than why do the
Ashford's retention rate does
stand out as being low, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. For example,
The Result: Accreditation is a Barrier to Entry and Suppresses Innovation
So what are we to make of accreditation, a system that inappropriately focuses on inputs and processes, has conflicts of interest, selectively enforces its requirements, and neglects outputs and outcomes? The most logical conclusion is that accreditation is simply a barrier to entry designed to protect existing universities. Why else make the existing universities' inputs and processes a requirement for all universities? Why else give existing universities so much say over who can join the club?
The spectacle of entrenched interests protecting their turf
is bad enough in itself, but the even bigger tragedy is that it also suppresses
innovation. When you dictate the inputs to be used and the processes to be
followed, as accreditation currently does, you eliminate the possibility of
innovation that discovers how to accomplish the goal with different, less expensive,
inputs and processes.
The spectacle of entrenched interests protecting their turf is bad enough in itself, but the even bigger tragedy is that it also suppresses innovation. When you dictate the inputs to be used and the processes to be followed, as accreditation currently does, you eliminate the possibility of innovation that discovers how to accomplish the goal with different, less expensive, inputs and processes.
That accreditation is a barrier to entry--enforcing inappropriate input and process requirements--is bad. That a consequence of this is the suppression of innovation is unforgivable. Figuring out how to educate more students with less money is perhaps the most important national goal right now, and it requires innovation, but accreditation sabotages the necessary innovation. It is time to redesign the accreditation system.
Andrew Gillen is the Senior Researcher at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).