Why do I keep covering accreditation issues on e-Literate, a blog nominally about online learning and educational technology? The reason is that accrediting commissions have enormous influence on higher education institutions, particularly as the industry wrestles with questions of which changes are necessary, which changes are worth trying but might not work, and which changes should be avoided. If there really is a shift in the DOE's views on accreditation or in the accrediting commissions' interpretation of standards, then that could have fairly profound cascade effects on competency-based learning programs, private online colleges, MOOCs, and online service providers.
That is also why the lack of transparency from the accrediting commissions is so troubling. They are making decisions that have profound effects on many institutions, not just the specific schools under review.
Case 1: Tiffin University and HLC
Today, Tiffin University announced to students a directive from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) that the school must discontinue offering associate degree programs through Ivy Bridge College as of October 20, 2013. Ivy Bridge College, a college within Tiffin University, has offered online associate degree programs to students across the U.S. since its creation in 2008. The HLC directive, which was issued on July 25, was unexpected by Tiffin University, and Ivy Bridge College is now intensely focused on ensuring that its students’ progress towards a degree won’t be interrupted by the decision despite the very short timeline.
Inside Higher Ed, partially based on an interview with the HLC commission's president.
The inquiry was triggered by policies related to the outsourcing of academics, officials at Tiffin and Altius said. Those standards require member institutions to seek prior approval for any contract that outsources a portion of educational programs to an unaccredited institution -- one that is not accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education -- or to a corporation or other entity.
The commission must grant approval to arrangements where 25 to 50 percent of an educational program is outsourced. The bar is higher for those that outsource more than 50 percent. Those contracts "will receive intense scrutiny and will not be approved by the commission except in exceptional circumstances," according to the policy. [emphasis added]
Ivy Bridge ran afoul of a standard that was instituted in 2009, according to Sylvia Manning, the commission's president. That policy governs a program's "change of control, structure or organization." She said the accreditor first became aware of the scope of Ivy Bridge's operation last year. It then raised questions about the college's structure, after conducting a site visit in March.
So is this a ruling from an accreditor about academic quality or about the 25% rule (see emphasis above)?
However, Manning said via e-mail that Ivy Bridge's problems extended beyond its ownership structure. She said the college had "very poor academic performance." And the commission told The Toledo Blade that a review of the program led to concerns about course quality, academic rigor and student retention.
Marion, however, had a different take. He defended Ivy Bridge's track record, particularly on student satisfaction, and said the accreditor had praised the program in the past. He declined to share the commission’s July letter, at least for now. But the bottom line, he said, was that the commission was uncomfortable with aspects of Ivy Bridge’s business and governance structure.
“It didn’t have anything to do with the quality of the program,” he said. “It’s purely a judgment on their part about the business relationship.”
The commission also did not release the letter, per its typical approach of not making public documents related to accreditation reviews. So until the documents become public, it's impossible to say which version of events is right. [emphasis added]
You read that right - we don't know because of HLC policies to not share its documents. All we have is he said / she said media battles. Yet this decision could have a major impact on the whole online service provider market where public institutions contract with for-profit companies to help them go online. HLC's ruling could affect dozens of schools, but they are treating this as a private matter with Tiffin University.
Paul Fain from Inside Higher Ed tried to get these documents, but neither HLC nor Tiffin would share the specific letter ordering the shutdown. This is ironic, given HLC's recent policy changes to improve transparency.
Next, HLC will make available to the public through its website a redesigned Statement of Accreditation Status and the most recent HLC action letter related to the granting or reaffirmation of candidacy or accreditation. This phase will be implemented in summer 2013 and will include action letters conveying institutional actions taken by the Board at its meeting in June 2013 and thereafter.
Hmm, from what I can tell, July 25th came after June 2013.
Case 2: City College of San Francisco (CCSF)
I have covered in much more detail the case of CCSF and how it has been notified by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) that it would lose accreditation by July 31, 2014 - making it the largest college in the US to lose accreditation and shut down. I won't go into the details, as you can read the three previous posts linked above.
Unlike Tiffin University, CCSF has done an excellent job sharing the documentation to and from ACCJC since the 2006 re-accreditation, including having a easy-to-use web page.
But a new twist occurred today when CCSF officials formally asked ACCJC to reconsider its decision. As described by the San Francisco Chronicle:
City College of San Francisco asked a commission on Tuesday to reverse its devastating decision to revoke the school's accreditation next year - but has been told not to share any details of its request with the public. [snip]
"I strongly believe that the best path to maintaining CCSF's accreditation is to follow the commission's rules," Agrella [special trustee for CCSF] said.
As if to prove the point, he said he was obligated to follow a rule the commission revealed last week that took him and his boss, state community colleges Chancellor Brice Harris, by surprise: The contents of the college's request must be kept secret.
Agrella and Harris had just announced that those documents would be made public. The fate of the vast City College is an issue of concern to thousands of students, staff and faculty - as well as the state - and Agrella said he had received many requests for documents to be made public. "Chancellor Harris and I sincerely apologize for our premature comments," Agrella wrote in his e-mail.
"We have been clearly informed by the commission that all parts of the appeal process, including the review, are to be treated as confidential."
News that the process will be kept secret and that the Department of Education findings have been sidelined raised the ire of faculty who thought they were making headway by discrediting the accrediting commission.
"I'm outraged," said Wendy Kaufmyn, an engineering instructor and faculty activist, who immediately dashed off a concerned letter to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of 17 instructors, counselors and community organizers active in the Save CCSF Coalition.
"The accrediting commission acts like a star chamber," Kaufmyn said in an interview. "They should be operating transparently and democratically - but they don't. Everything is secret."
Kaufmyn is right - accrediting commissions should be transparent in their operations, as their decisions affect so many people. But ACCJC is not only keeping their information secret, they're forcing CCSF to stop sharing documents. This also is ironic, given ACCJC's efforts to become more transparent.
The Commission launched a review of its Accreditation Standards and practices in November 2011. The 2011-2013 Review will help the Commission determine if changes to the Standards and practices are needed to maintain alignment with the new higher education environment (federal regulation and public expectations of quality, accountability, and transparency).
I can save them some money in finishing this 2-year review. Yes, changes are needed.
This lack of transparency from accrediting commissions is a relic of a bygone era when higher education was relatively stable and accrediting decisions mostly affected the specific institution under review. But given the changes that the higher education industry is facing and going through, these policies are damaging to those institutions who are trying out new models and need to know where the boundaries are drawn.
Accrediting commissions play an important role in the governance of our higher education industry, in particular by providing a method for quality assurance. By operating in such an opaque manner, however, the agencies are effectively acting as a barrier to change and stifling innovation.