Community Colleges and Accreditation

March 14, 2013Dr. Dustin Swanger

There is a great deal of discussion at national conferences, in the halls of legislatures, in the offices of governors, etc., about holding higher education institutions accountable for what they do. How do we know that the quality of education provided is at the correct level? How do we know that public funds are being spent responsibly? How do we know that colleges are striving to improve? These are fair questions, and everyone in higher education can be held accountable. The big question is, of course, how are such things measured?

While I support accountability for all organizations, there is growing concern in higher education, and certainly at FM, that government agencies are adding reporting requirements that in many ways duplicate accountability standards that are already being met. A first response could be, “Then what’s the problem?” The problem is that colleges, like FM, are using more and more resources to report similar data on various forms in ways that are different enough to require a new set of data and analysis, but substantively address the same accountability issues that higher education has addressed for decades.

Colleges and universities that wish to be eligible for federal funding (financial aid for students) must be accredited by a recognized regionally accrediting organization. For FM, that organization is called Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. This is an organization of colleges and universities that uses a peer review process to monitor the quality and operations of its member institutions through accreditation and periodic reaccreditation. Like other accrediting bodies, Middle States has developed “Characteristics of Excellence” consisting of fourteen standards by which we are all measured. These standards include: Mission, Administration, Faculty, Finances, General Education, Academic Programs, Assessment, and others.

A cynic could suggest that peer review processes are just “good ole boy networks” and do not truly monitor quality. Having experienced the process of preparing for reaccreditation and having led two visiting teams to other community college campuses, it is clear to me that no one just gets a pass on the standards. The work is rigorous; the tone is collegial but firm; and the anxiety during the process is always high.

So what’s my point? It seems to me that since all colleges and universities must go through the accreditation process, rather than elected officials developing new “quality standards,” “assessment processes,” “reporting requirements,” etc., perhaps resources would be better spent using the existing system to assure accountability. If adjustments need to be made to provide more information or more frequent data points, let’s address it through a process that has been proven to be successful and has the support of educational institutions.

Everyone should be willing to be held accountable for their work. Every institution should be willing to demonstrate that it is doing good work and spending public money appropriately. However, we should monitor and report this accountability in an effective and efficient manner in order to manage resources to the benefit of all.

Dr. Dustin Swanger is President of FM.

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