Accreditation and Student Learning

Accreditation and Student Learning

“WASC” stands for the Western Association of Schools and College. I am at the annual WASC “Academic Resource Conference” in San Francisco. There are about 950 here, from over two hundred institutions in California, Hawaii, and across the Pacific. The US is unique in having peer institutions review and accredit the quality of education in the region—hence “regional accreditation.” It is a partnership between public and independent institutions, and government agencies. A school must have regional accreditation to be eligible for students to receive federal grants and loans. In other parts of the world government agencies certify and control colleges and universities.

Among the schools here are large state institutions, the UCs and the CSUs (which are about 25% of the institutions in WASC, but have about 70% of the students), large independents, small specialized graduate schools, and faith based schools—whether small liberal arts schools, medium sized comprehensive universities like Fresno Pacific, or even larger church related universities.

Regional accreditation signals academic quality. We’ve been accredited by WASC for over 45 years. It takes a lot of energy from the whole university and is costly. But every time I participate in a conference, a training session, or on a visiting team at a college or university going through the accreditation process I am reminded of the value and integrity of the system. As the current “ALO” (Accrediting Liaison Officer) for FPU, it is my job to represent the process and WASC to the university. So let me tell you what I think of it.

There have been several themes running through the conference already, and they do not sit easily together. First is the massive new “bi-partisan” effort coming out of Washington to regulate higher education. Congress and the Department of Education are moving to regulate “seat time” for students (15 hours for each unit of credit, and 2 hours of additional work for every one hour of class time) in an age where higher education is innovating with online and accelerated models for working adults. The concern on both sides of the aisle is especially about the for-profit institutions. They admit large numbers of students; only a small percentage of them graduate according to the reported stats; and they bring federal dollars to the institutions in the forms of grants and loans. But the concern has spread to all institutions with concern over graduation rates, loan balances students carry, and loan default rates.

Almost simultaneously, we are hearing about possibilities in educational innovation using new media, creating new learning communities in which students have all kinds of non-traditional tools for exploration and creation of ideas, processes, and products and the development of professional knowledge and skills. In these new ways of learning and exploration, the old “seat time” standards go out the window.

Which one will win—the governmental attempt to control or innovation? Congress has the power of federal financial aid on their side. Innovation has the force of developing culture on its. I’m betting on the government, unless accrediting agencies like WASC can articulate and substantiate how and why students are learning in non-traditional ways. But then that will depend on the willingness of governmental bureaucracies to listen, test, collaborate and trust. And it will depend on our universities to be transparent about student success, and their struggles to meet the needs of their student populations, while encouraging and deepening student learning.

I mentioned above that the higher education system in the US is unique compared to other parts of the world in its non-governmental accreditation. This system is both a private, or at least non-governmental initiative, and a public or civic good. It his heartening to mix with representatives from institutions of all kinds struggling together with the essential test of what makes a good university. This struggle is at the heart of the accreditation process, and is the major theme of the conference, how and with what depth and breadth students learn at our institutions. This is what we should be engaged with as institutions of higher learning. WASC and other regional accrediting agencies with their emphases on that central mission of all of our institutions, student learning, are the groups who allow our unique, diverse system of American higher education to flourish despite governmental regulation.

When we hear so often of public efforts that seem to miss the point (the current budget debates both in California and Washington are two examples), it is encouraging to see and to be a part of a private/public effort that gets it right and knows how to focus on the central issue. WASC is a friend and partner in our educational mission.

Educated State

Steve Varvis

Tagged: Accreditation Assessment

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