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WASC Concept Papers, 2nd Series The Changing Ecology of Higher Education and Its Impact on Accreditation January

2013
The New Ecology for Higher Education: Challenges to Accreditation Updated Version* Peter Ewell NCHEMS
As American higher education nears the midpoint of the second decade of a new millennium, it inhabits a landscape that is rapidly being transformed. If current trends continue, college students in 2020 will participate in new kinds of learning experiences, access new kinds of learning resources, and deal with a broader range of providers than ever before. Meanwhile, providers themselves harness almost unimagined new technologies, will face escalating demands for performance and be forced to operate in an increasingly seamless global marketplace for higher education. Together, these conditions constitute nothing less than a new ecology for higher education. Its characteristics are increasingly removed from the environment in which current accreditation approaches evolved. As a consequence, they are bound to pose challenges to these approaches. This brief paper examines the nature of these changes and the specific challenges that each poses to established accreditation practices. These changes are of two main kinds: one external to colleges and universities, and the other embedded in higher education institutions and the system they constitute. The paper then goes on to note the kinds of changes in accreditation practices that are needed to meet these challenges and how WASC has responded. External Challenges A first set of challenges resides within the wider social and political realm in which higher education must operate. Colleges and universities exercise little control over these forces and must in some way accommodate them. They do have a choice about how they do so, however, because some adaptations are deliberate and proactive, while others remain unconscious and reactive. Accountability for Results. Probably the most important shift in the external landscape for higher education that has occurred since the earlier version of this paper is an unprecedented demand for accountability on the part of the U.S. Department of Education. Beginning with the report of the Secretarys Commission on the Future of Higher Education in 2007 (the so-called Spellings Commission), each successive year has occasioned new calls for increased levels of performance and public reporting. Just last year, for example, reports were issued by both the American Council on Educations (ACE) Task Force on Accreditation and the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) that called for renewed attention to student academic achievement and public reporting. In addition, all expectations that the change of administration in Washington in 2008 would reduce the pressure on colleges and universities to demonstrate student success and acceptable learning outcomes among graduates vanished with the Obama administrations new postsecondary attainment goals and its accompanying accountability provisions. Whatever the fortunes of the respective political parties in the decade to come, therefore, the need to be accountable for learning will likely remain. What is more, the nature of the demand has shifted.
* The original version of this working paper was prepared two years ago as a resource for the task forces charged with updating the WASC accreditation standards and visit process. Although this was only two years ago, the conditions affecting American higher education and institutional accreditation as its principal quality assurance mechanism are sufficiently different today that a new edition is called for. Accordingly, this paper expands and updates the observations made earlier in October, 2010. This is one of a series of concept papers commissioned by the WASC Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, to inform the redesign of its accreditation process.

Accreditors have been asked by regulators with growing stridence over the last twenty years to require institutions to pay attention to student learning outcomes in the course of a review. These efforts have met with considerable success, as shown by the findings of two recent surveys of institutional assessment activities conducted by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA). Now there is a demand for accreditors to go beyond just doing assessment by examining the average performance of selected samples of students. The new expectation instead is ensuring that all graduates measure up to established learning outcomes standards. The growing press for such standards is shown by the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) issued in 2011 by the Lumina Foundation for Education to stimulate the discussion of common standards for higher education and the college-ready standards for high school exit currently being implemented in most states. Regional accreditors have done a fine job of stimulating institutions to build their capacity to do assessment over the past fifteen years, but they have little experience with engaging institutions constructively in conversations about actual expectations and performance with respect to student learning outcomes. Transparency Demands. Accompanying these external demands for specific performance in the realm of student success and meeting acceptable levels of Accountability for Results learning are growing calls for both accreditors and Transparency Demands institutions to become far more transparent about Changing Demographics what they do and the results they achieve. For many years, regional accreditations traditional practices Constrained Resources of revealing only the accredited status of the insti A Global Higher Education System tutions they review caused little public comment. In an age of accountability, though, this stance has become untenable. Accreditors are now pressed to publish the broad findings of all reviews by identifying areas of challenge and exemplary performance. At the same time, they are under greater pressure to broaden public participation in what is perceived by many outsiders to be a secretive process by increasing the number of public members on Commissions and, where appropriate, expert public participation on review teams. Institutions are simultaneously being asked to show more about their internal operations (standards of student academic achievement, quality of resources and learning experiences, and so on) and their academic results. Accreditors are the vehicle for these demands, so they are increasingly called upon to require institutions to disclose certain things and check up on how well they are doing so. Changing Demographics. Meanwhile, the composition of Americas student body is beginning to mirror its wider population with respect to race and ethnicity. African American and Hispanic students comprise over 27% of current college students, with California, the WASC regions largest state, leading this national trend. Most of this growth is in the youngest population quartile which is about to enter college. Despite their best efforts, established colleges and universities do not have a very good track record of retaining such students of color into their second years of enrollment and seeing them through to graduation. Because student success among traditionally underserved populations will be increasingly critical to maintaining baccalaureate degree production in the coming decade, accreditors must pay particular attention to statistics on student success, disaggregated by race/ethnicity, and to using the discussions generated by reviewing such indicators to refocus institutional attention on targeted retention and academic enhancement programs. Constrained Resources. The current global economic downturn was preceded by a long period of state budgetary shortfalls and consequent disinvestment in public higher education. And available evidence suggests that most states will be in structural deficit throughout the coming decade, even if the economy rebounds more broadly. Growing gaps between rich and poor accompanying these economic trends,

External Challenges

This is one of a series of concept papers commissioned by the WASC Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, to inform the redesign of its accreditation process.

moreover, already mean that higher education has become unaffordable to growing numbers of students. These conditions put pressure on accreditation to ensure that institutions are paying proper attention to the stewardship of their fiscal resources for future survival, demanding attention to efficiency as well as effectiveness. As above, they also raise questions of equity if institutions are turning their backs on qualified but less-well-off potential students in their admissions and financial aid policies. Finally, they put pressure on accreditors themselves to make the accreditation process more efficient by reducing duplication, streamlining reporting, and harnessing technology to enable virtual presence and collaboration. A Global Higher Education System. Finally, the U.S. higher education system is not operating in isolation from those of the rest of the world. Just as students move from institution to institution and state to state with greater frequency, foreign students are coming to the U.S. and U.S. institutions are operating abroad in greater numbers. Distance delivery is accelerating these phenomena and it is likely that 2020 will be characterized by a flatter higher education world. Increased globalization has several dimensions that affect accreditation. First, it means that academic standards for undergraduate and masters-level work are converging across national contexts. The Bologna process in Europe is the most visible manifestation of the emergence of aligned global standards, with counterparts in Australasia, as well as Central and South America. To be acceptable abroad, U.S. standards for student learning outcomes will need to be aligned with these new prototypes and be assessed in similar fashions. Another dimension of going global is that the quality of U.S. institutions operating abroad must be assured. At the same time, in order to gain credibility, non-U.S. institutions are beginning to seek and receive recognition from American accreditors, including WASC. Both of these should entail extending partnerships between American accreditors and other national quality assurance agencies, which need to know what U.S. accreditation entails and what they can expect when dealing with it. Finally, a flattening world demands that U.S. college graduates have global competencies including an understanding of other cultures, geographic knowledge, and foreign language skills. One implication of these trends is that these should be added to established lists of generic competencies that accreditors require institutions to teach and assess. Internal Challenges Paralleling these external developments is a series of significant changes within colleges and universities that have an important bearing on the meaning of quality and, therefore, the conduct of accreditation as quality assurance. Here it is important to remember that despite changes in the number and scale of higher education institutions, underlying features such as structure and organization, curriculum and pedagogy, and faculty roles and responsibilities did not change very much in the century that followed the establishment of the first regional accrediting organizations in the late nineteenth century. Accreditation standards and review processes were designed specifically to fit this environment and did so appropriately and effectively for many years. With these elements in flux, however, existing standards and review processes become increasingly problematic. New Kinds of Providers. One of the most rapid and striking developments of the past five years has been the growth of new kinds of postsecondary providers. Pure distance-delivery institutions are becoming more common and, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the for-profit sector now serves over 12% of the nations undergraduates. Particularly striking has been the growth of some for-profit institutions that have doubled enrollment annually over multiple years. Such rapid growth raises fundamental questions about the ability of such institutions to match enrollment increases with necessary infrastructure and breadth of administrative experience. At the same time, the for-profit business model is not well understood by regional accreditors and poses challenges to established notions of governance. Finally, looking even farther into the future, some providers are not higher education institutions at all: expansion of corporate training opportunities and the growing number of resources that learners can access on their own now allow a dedicated student to master all the material contained in a baccalaureThis is one of a series of concept papers commissioned by the WASC Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, to inform the redesign of its accreditation process.

ate program without attending an organized institution of higher education at all. Accreditation standards developed in an era dominated by face-to-face classrooms and faculty-centered approaches to teaching and learning are not well suited to these new institutions. In parallel, standards and review processes evolved primarily to address traditional instructional and scholarly activities are out of step with institutions for which awarding degrees and certificates is the dominant activity. New Patterns of Participation. The dominant pattern Internal Challenges of college attendance in America no longer has individual higher education institutions at its center. New Kinds of Providers Several dimensions of this dominant pattern can be New Patterns of Participation discerned, some established and some emerging. A New Paradigm of Teaching and First, Department of Education longitudinal surveys Learning have for twenty years reported that the majority of A Transformed Contingent students earning a baccalaureate degree attended two Faculty or more institutions, with a fifth attending three or more. These developments are raising issues about how learning transfers from one institution to another in a cumulative and coherent fashion as a student works toward a credential. Adding to this fractionalization, some parts of an institutions curriculum may be developed and delivered by third-party providers, raising parallel questions about transfer of content within the curriculum. For-profit companies such as StraighterLine, for example, allow institutions to essentially outsource many commonly-taken lower-division courses that are required to earn a baccalaureate degree. The growing availability of credit-bearing courses on the web through modalities like Massive Open On-Line Courses (MOOCs) will only add to this trend. Both situations render accreditations dominant paradigm of accrediting individual institutions increasingly obsolescent and demand greater attention to how institutions ensure that quality is protected when so much of the instructional process is outside their direct control. A New Paradigm of Teaching and Learning. Also fading into history is the traditional academic calendar based on fixed time-based terms (semesters or quarters) and one-way transmission of content. In contrast, the emerging new paradigm of teaching and learning, best illustrated now by a handful of competencybased institutions like Western Governors University (WGU), is based on a mastery model in which students make academic progress by successfully completing, at their own pace, successive examinations, demonstrations, or performances. In contrast to the traditional seat-time approach, this model is not only asynchronous, but it is also characterized by a wide diversity of individual learning experiences. No two students at WGU, for example, will have engaged in the same curriculum, although all will be expected to meet common outcomes standards. At the opposite end of the continuum, another feature of this new paradigm of teaching and learning is characterized by far more standardized and structured learning experiences built using insights about how people learn provided through cognitive science. Institutions employing this mode, like the British Open University and many U.S. for-profits, rely on a centrallydeveloped, standardized curriculum delivered by adjunct faculty or at a distance. By 2020, it is very likely that a majority of the nations college students will be experiencing one of these two transformed modes of provision. Both of these approaches challenge accreditations traditional view of instructional quality based on resources and processes. They also require established standards of mastery based upon an agreed-upon array of intended learning outcomes consistent with the needs of the 21st century. These approaches challenge accreditation to help establish what intended learning outcomes ought to be. A Transformed and Contingent Faculty. For most of accreditations history, the faculty workforce at all types of institutions was overwhelmingly centered on full-time faculty on a tenure track. Faculty members in these roles are expected to serve as colleagues for one another in developing new courses and curricula,

This is one of a series of concept papers commissioned by the WASC Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, to inform the redesign of its accreditation process.

setting academic standards and policies, and engaging to various degrees in scholarship and creative activity. Full-time appointments also meant that most faculty were available to participate in professional development to build their skills in such areas as effective collaborative pedagogy, use of technology in teaching, and assessing student learning outcomes. Since that time, the face of Americas faculty has shifted markedly. According to NCES figures, about a third of the current professoriate now consists of part-time faculty hired on a contingent basis to staff introductory or lower-division courses with high student demand. Meanwhile, growing numbers of those employed full-time are not on a tenure track and remain employed on a contract basis as instructors. These trends are especially prevalent at open-admission public colleges and universities and are overwhelmingly the case in the rapidly growing for-profit sector. In light of accreditations heavy focus on the faculty role in designing and approving all aspects of the teaching/ learning process, and accreditations historic emphasis on the role of faculty in participatory governance, these trends must be re-examined. Especially salient are questions about how the quality of teaching and learning is monitored and assured when the faculty role is unbundled so that different individuals are responsible for instructional design, content delivery, mentoring, and student assessment. Implications of These Changes It is easier to define these emerging changes and identify the challenges they pose to current accreditation practices than it is to delineate the specifics of how these practices ought to change. Nevertheless, these trends suggest the following: Accreditors will need to perform a more overt accountability role, with processes more attuned to public concerns about quality. This will include greater public participation in the accreditation process by increasing the number of public members on Commissions and, where appropriate, lay members of review teams. One implication, already visible as of June 2012 at WASC, is that the results of reviews be reported in more detail to external audiences, including summaries of findings and an enumeration of institutional strengths and shortcomings. Another is that WASC ensure that all institutions make learning outcomes public, together with appropriately justified levels of student performance on them. Accreditors will need to shift some of their attention toward monitoring how students progress longitudinally toward credentials, using the services of many educational providers. This may require special attention to examining how the increasingly disparate parts of a students experience fit together to constitute an effective path to a given credential or degree. How institutions treat, monitor, and evaluate incoming transfer courses will also be an important part of this. In addition, accreditors will need to increasingly recognizeand possibly reviewoutsourced providers of packaged courses and informational websites. At the very least, they will have to pay more attention to examining the criteria by which institutions decide to use licensed providers such as these and accept their credits. These trends, as well as the changing paradigm of teaching and learning, will require even more emphasis to be placed on aligned standards of academic achievement, as well as solid evidence that these standards are being achieved. This will require attention to what the common elements of a bachelors or masters degree ought to be, as well as how institutions set performance benchmarks on these learning outcomes as good enough. This was the reason WASC revised the contents of CFR2.2a and is according new prominence to institutions efforts to assess these competencies. The Lumina DQP may provide institutions with useful guidance in doing this. Accreditors will require new standards and review approaches to deal with an unbundled faculty roles. Reviewing faculty credentials and how faculty members are deployed will no longer be enough. In addition, attention must be paid to how the unbundled components of the traditional faculty role are re-integrated to yield coherent learning experiences and how individuals are developed and evaluated in these new roles. Current accreditation standards, including WASCs, are properly focused on the faculty
This is one of a series of concept papers commissioned by the WASC Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, to inform the redesign of its accreditation process.

role in delivering content, but less attention is typically paid to the faculty role in mentoring students and assessing their performance. Also, as these distinct roles are increasingly enacted by different individuals, review attention must also be devoted to examining how institutions ensure that they are appropriately integrated and coordinated. Review processes will need to be more visibly cost-effective, employing, where appropriate, more virtual communication and less paper-and-pencil reporting. What reporting remains must be indicator-based and ruthlessly focused on institutional effectiveness and performance. These revisions are apparent in the institutional review process established in the 2013 WASC Handbook of Accreditation, which emphasize indicators. A focus on performance, in turn, means continuing to develop new requirements that every visit include a focused conversation about graduation rates and eventually extending such requirements to include mandatory conversations about student learning results. U.S. accreditors will increasingly need to partner with and mutually recognize the actions of quality assurance authorities in the rest of the world. As they do so, moreover, they will need to align their expectations of what degree recipients at various levels should be expected to know and do with the Qualifications Frameworks already established by other countries. For WASC in particular, this means reviewing and aligning the outcomes standards noted in CFR2.2a with the Lumina DQP and some of the major Qualifications Frameworks of nations where institutions from the region do business. This also means creating more proactive partnerships with the quality assurance agencies of these countries. As shown by the past ten years, change can happen quickly and become transformational. After all, tools that we now take for granted, ranging from Google to GoToMeeting, were only created in the last decade. The standards and review processes that WASC has developed for the current Handbook looking toward 2020 anticipate similar rates and directions of change. They are positioned for an era of greater accountability and rapid instructional transformation, while they provide institutions with a sound basis upon which to examine themselves objectively and systematically improve. As such, they represent an appropriate response to the new ecology for higher education that faces us today.

This is one of a series of concept papers commissioned by the WASC Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities, to inform the redesign of its accreditation process.