The fact that America’s principal higher education quality-control mechanism, regional accreditation, is split up among six geographically-defined organizations with different standards and policies is one of the more anachronistic elements of national higher education policy. As Milton Greenberg has said, it would make more sense to divvy up the college multitudes by sector–giant research universities, liberal arts colleges, job-focused for-profits, etc–than by region.
But federalism has its compensatory advantages and one of them is that having multiple organizations increases the odds that at least one of them will do something interesting and important. So it’s very encouraging to read that Ralph Wolff and his colleagues at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges are advancing an ambitious proposal to revamp WASC policies:
Many of the alterations in the “redesign” would represent a significant break with how WASC and the other regional accrediting agencies have historically operated, including by making public the commission’s letters of findings about individual colleges and using an outside auditing firm to review the finances of publicly traded higher education companies during WASC’s accreditation process. Currently, WASC announces the actions it has taken on colleges, but does not release the evaluations themselves.
But perhaps no change would be more dramatic than a proposed requirement that colleges benchmark their own learning outcomes and measures of student success (i.e., retention and graduation rates) against those of their peers. One WASC document summarizing the commission’s goals suggested that each institution would work with WASC to set a “target graduation rate” (and potentially different rates for different subgroups) that it would “be expected to meet or exceed.”
“Our institutions have done an enormous amount of work on theprocess of assessment” of student learning, “but we need to do better at answering what the results mean,” Wolff said in an interview at last week’s meeting. But amid increased questioning about how much college students are learning, he said, WASC officials believe the time has come “to work with institutions to decide how you would validate those results in a responsible way…. What’s ‘good enough’ has to be more transparent.”
These are all needed reforms and WASC deserves a lot of credit for leading the way.