What Regional Accreditors Need Now: A Shared and Contemporary Framework for Quality College Learning

Originally published on AAC&U’s LEAP Challenge Blog.

The upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) offers an opportunity to address the role of regional accreditors in ensuring that college students graduate well prepared for success in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, recent comments from Congressional leaders suggest that while accreditation may feature in the HEA negotiations, policymakers have little interest in tackling the critical core of accreditation, which is ensuring quality learning for all students, wherever they begin college and wherever they finish.

In recent interviews with the Washington Post, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) each discussed their priorities for the HEA reauthorization and for higher education more broadly. Both Alexander and Murray discussed the need to reduce bureaucracy and improve access and affordability, including by simplifying the famously complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Senator Alexander also brought up accreditation and remarked that accreditors’ main focus should be the academic quality of institutions—a welcome statement in the face of so much political rhetoric that focuses exclusively on “return on investment” defined in terms of graduates’ earnings and other financial metrics. But when asked about the Department of Education’s request for freedom to set accreditation guidelines, Alexander said that he was more interested in “solutions that decentralize higher education, that deregulate it and that make it simpler and easier for administrators, students and the 6,000 colleges to make their own decisions.”

Alexander undoubtedly intended to be reassuring to higher education institutions. But there is a fundamental point about the quality/student success/accreditation process challenge that Alexander’s remarks (and, indeed, the American Council on Education’s position and report on accreditation) simply overlook. If all 6,000-some institutions are left free to define quality in their own way, and especially if students are being guided to start in two-year institutions and then transfer to different institutions to complete their degrees, then students can find themselves attempting to navigate educational pathways just as byzantine as the 108-question FAFSA form. Indeed, they may find themselves with no discernible pathways at all, wandering confusedly in a zone where “quality learning” has no specific meaning beyond the compilation of credit hours in specific academic categories (major, general education, etc.).

Many college students already are in that “Quality Confusion” zone right now. In this new era of “swirl,” ever larger numbers of students are constructing their degrees from different educational institutions (and other “providers”).  But too often, students are getting a gerrymandered education, a kind of grab-and-go collection of courses, rather than the purposeful learning pathways, designed to foster deep learning and twenty-first-century intellectual skills, that they need and that our society needs, too.

The time is right for accreditors to take the lead in moving beyond this Quality Confusion. Over the past ten years, higher education has built new consensus on the learning outcomes college students need for success in the twenty-first century and created new tools, such as the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), that are designed to serve as “inter-institutional translators,” connecting learning outcomes, effective educational practices, and program design not just within institutions, but across institutions, including two-year and four-year transfer partners.

Work accomplished through AAC&U’s LEAP initiative and through the beta testing of the DQP has identified and advanced shared goals for quality learning that students should encounter anywhere (and everywhere), because these goals reflect the capabilities actually needed in virtually every sphere of human endeavor: work, community, and life.

Both LEAP and the DQP outline—in flexible and faculty-respectful ways—learning outcomes or cross-cutting proficiencies that students can and should develop, across all content areas, including both broad and specialized studies. For example, both frameworks affirm that all students should develop analytic inquiry and problem-solving skills, and each recognizes that this will need to be done in the context of students’ chosen fields. All students need to be able to communicate, but the specific communication proficiencies required will vary from engineering to economics to early childhood education. LEAP and the DQP provide an accessible shared profile of expected learning; they do not in any way infringe on faculty members’ judgment about what content to teach or even how to foster the expected learning outcomes.

Employers, too, strongly endorse the learning outcomes included in both LEAP and the DQP and call insistently on higher education to do better on helping students achieve them, as AAC&U’s recent surveys of business leaders have found.

Research commissioned by AAC&U in 2009 and 2015 underscores the broad consensus  on expected learning outcomes across the full array of diverse institutional types and missions—public and private, large and small, two-year and four-year. For the first time, higher education has a set of shared learning outcomes that point all students toward broad learning about the world they inhabit, specialized knowledge in a particular area of interest, and cross-cutting proficiencies practiced across both broad and specialized learning. In addition, this consensus underscores the importance of preparing students for civic participation, US and global, and of teaching students to apply their learning to complex problems in “real-world” settings.

As I noted in December, this twenty-first-century consensus on expected learning outcomes sets the stage for “accreditors to provide—if they will only seize the opportunity that consensus enables—the needed leadership in defining, clarifying, and advancing quality learning.”

Faculty and staff across the country already are working to make our curricula more supportive of deep learning and higher levels of completion for all students. AAC&U’s twelve LEAP State partner systems and consortia are all working to map transfer pathways with shared learning outcomes and educational practices. But campus-level educators are doing this work without an enabling or affirming policy environment. And, unfortunately, provosts themselves report that the majority of their students do not really understand their institution’s own learning outcomes. Even as educators and employers have come to agreement on the knowledge, skills, and experiences graduates need for career success, students themselves have been left out of those shared quality learning expectations.

Accreditors would provide a much-needed public service by stepping up to the plate to adopt and promulgate a shared framework for twenty-first-century learning. In doing so, they would affirm the leadership that is already coming from their own member institutions. But even more important, they would adapt their quality assurance practices—forged in an earlier era—to the needs and realities of today’s diverse learners, and of a society whose future depends on those graduates’ preparation to create solutions for our shared future.

Look for the forthcoming issue of AAC&U’s journal Liberal Education for a series of articles discussing the connections between accreditation and quality learning in greater depth.

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