There is a growing concern about the cost, quality and value of higher education.
Despite the increasing cost of an academic degree, recent studies show substantial percentages of students, even in the most selective US colleges and universities, have failed to demonstrate significant improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over the four years of college.
While students score high grades – an A has become by far the most common grade and is awarded three times more frequently now than in the 1960s – surveys done over the last 30 years indicate that the amount of time college students report actually studying for their academic degrees has declined by almost 50%.
Other indicators too show a decline in student academic achievement. In 1995, the US led developed nations in the share of the population (ages 25-34) with a college degree; today we have fallen to 19 among 28 nations.
Consequently, Congress is now considering major reforms to academic accreditation, the primary means by which we assure the academic quality of our colleges and universities.
Why are there problems with US academic accreditation, and what policies are needed to improve and assure academic quality?
I have been studying academic quality assurance (QA) for the last decade. Comparative research on the quality assurance policies of other developed nations offers useful insights.
What is academic accreditation?
In the US, the process of accreditation was developed by colleges and universities over the last 100 years to evaluate, assure and improve academic quality.
Today, each accrediting agency is a private membership association which, based upon an external peer review of an institution or academic program, recommends the award of accredited status to colleges and universities. The US has six regional agencies accrediting nonprofit public and private as well as for-profit institutions.
Accreditation is now crucial for the economic survival of colleges and universities. Beginning with the Korean War GI Bill in 1952, student grants and loans provided by the federal government could be used only at accredited institutions.
Therefore, accreditation in the US now serves the dual function of academic quality assurance and eligibility to receive federal funds.
Why academic grades in US don’t reflect standards
However, US accreditation for bachelor’s degrees appears less successful than the quality assurance (QA) agencies of other developed countries such as Finland, the Netherlands and Norway. Why is that?
A significant difference lies in the structure of our baccalaureate education.
In most other countries, baccalaureate programs are focused on a particular field. The courses of instruction students take are largely mandated by each university, and academic programs often culminate in a comprehensive exam or project that influences students’ graduation.
Foreign academic programs, even in the arts and sciences, are more comparable to US undergraduate professional programs such as engineering and architecture.
The more cohesive degree structure in other countries motivates students to take their learning seriously and to invest greater time and effort in their studies.
These structured degrees also provide valuable information – both to the student and to the student’s program faculty – of what each student has actually learned.
In contrast, the majority of US baccalaureate students are enrolled in degree programs in which over three-quarters of their academic work is part of a general education component, and students personally select most of the courses they complete.
Because of the influence of a student’s grade point average on his or her future success, many, even at select colleges and universities, choose individual courses and academic majors characterized by greater grade inflation.
A study of Duke University undergraduate students estimated they elected 50% fewer courses in the educationally rigorous fields of the natural sciences and mathematics because grading practices across disciplines are not equitable.
Our undergraduate programs are distinctive in their large number of elective courses, the variation in grading standards across subject fields and the degree of student choice. There is also a lack of comprehensive measures of what students actually learn from their general education as well as from many majors.
Consequently, the faculty’s reliance on academic credits and grades as the principal means of assuring academic standards is ineffective.
So, how can public policy best address this problem?
As Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom argued, neither markets nor the rules of the state are the most effective means “to govern, provide, and manage public goods” that are complex and difficult to measure, like academic knowledge.
This is particularly the case in professional, self-governing organizations like US colleges and universities.
I believe three actions are essential.
First, as the education ministers of the European Union (EU) stipulated in a collective policy governing QA agencies in their respective countries: effective quality assurance requires a national regulatory agency with appropriate expertise, which is truly independent from governments, higher education institutions and organs of political influence.
As of now, in the US, the private accrediting agencies are owned, operated and financially supported by fees paid by the institutions they evaluate.
At the federal level, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) has the power to define accrediting criteria as well as approve accreditation agencies whose awards provide eligibility for federal funds.
The NACIQI reports to the Department of Education and is composed of 18 members, six appointed by the secretary of education and 12 appointments divided evenly between the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate.
In short, the existing system for assuring academic quality in the US is neither independent nor autonomous.
One means of creating a truly independent and competent national quality assurance agency would be to assign the responsibilities of NACIQI to an agency governed by and reporting to the National Academies of Science.
The National Academies are private, nonprofit societies of distinguished scholars dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Based upon a congressional charter granted in 1863, the National Academies have a mandate to advise the federal government on matters of science and education.
Institutional measures for learning outcomes
The criteria for US academic accreditation need to be more sharply focused on institutional processes that ensure quality in teaching and student learning.
These include the institution’s processes for:
- designing, approving, and evaluating academic courses and programs
- evaluating and improving instruction
- assuring the integrity of grading standards across subject fields
- assuring the validity of means for assessing student learning outcomes.
Instead, the accreditation criteria mandated by NACIQI now include institutional measures not directly related to student academic performance. These include facilities, fiscal and administrative capacity, as well as student recruiting and admissions practices.
The question for accreditors is not whether an institution has a process for evaluating academic programs, but whether evaluations are objectively assessing program quality and resulting in demonstrable improvement in teaching and student learning within identified programs.
The academic audit review at Hong Kong’s universities, adapted by the public university systems in Missouri and Tennessee, provides a valuable model for this approach.
Third, the policy approved by the educational ministers in the EU countries also required that all national QA agencies in participating countries undergo an independent external evaluation, which is made public.
Our higher education would be served best if a new federal QA agency were similarly required to be publicly evaluated by an established, respected and truly independent national organization such as the US Government Accountability Office.
This would also help provide assessments of the extent to which a regulatory agency helps assure academic standards.
Eventually, the most effective means of reforming US academic accreditation would be to reframe and redesign our national process for assuring academic quality.
We need to remember that academic accreditation should reinforce the incentives for collective action by faculty members within each college and university, for that is the surest means to effectively assess and continually improve teaching and student learning.