How much influence should externally-driven measures have over accreditors and institutions of higher learning?

Last week, on a very hot summer day (specifically, a Friday), I attended the CHEA summer workshop in Washington, DC, expecting a slow, somnolent day of discussion in the traditional manner of accreditation meetings. What I found was a much more engaged and robust conference than I anticipated, and one that finally seemed to match the heightened discourse surrounding the value of higher education in the U.S.

The biggest thread running throughout the day was the tension between accreditation and external bodies (the U.S. Government, foundations, etc.) on how to measure quality of academic programs. Clearly accreditors are unhappy with the specific measures that the U.S. Department of Education is requiring them to use (specifically the economic measures of student success) and urged the government to stay out of quality determinations. Diane Auer Jones of the Urban Institute lambasted the “outcomes” measures used by the Department as not scientifically robust and biased by confounding factors, like race and socioeconomic status, even going so far as to say that the outcomes agenda as currently conceived is biased toward greater selectivity and will destroy higher education.

In spite of the tensions regarding who decides the measures and which measures actually mean something, there was one area of agreement in the room–accreditors must do something to advance the quality conversation. James Kvall, Ford School professor and former Deputy Director of the White House Policy Council asserted that questions of college value have never been so central to the national conversation, and that accreditors are uniquely positioned to ensure these outcomes and exert leadership. Accreditors themselves claimed several times that they need to do more to ensure the value added in educational programs and to better communicate what they do to the public. Susan Phillips, chair of NACIQI, mentioned that accreditation could really use a good p.r. agency to tell the world what it does and doesn’t do. (What is the accreditation elevator speech??)

So, what does this mean for NASPAA? Turns out that professional accreditors are ahead of the game on some of these conversations. Connecting professional outcomes and competencies to program quality has been, in one form or another, part of professional accreditation for decades. According to a recent ASPA study, 100% of specialized and professional accreditors rely on outcomes in their review, and 93% rely on student learning outcomes. Given that these elements are at the heart of the NASPAA process, the organization is well-positioned to weather the accountability discussion on its face. Thus, the good news is that NASPAA is standing up and owning accountability for public affairs programs and the students they serve. However, that commitment is just the start. NASPAA must still have its eyes open to ensure that the measures it collects are, in fact, actually related to quality. If we truly want to innovate and improve, it is crucial that we differentiate the indicators that make a difference for the students served from the noise. Seeking this validation over time is no small task and will require a substantial intellectual contribution from NASPAA’s public administration and policy professors, many of whom are experts on this very topic.