The dangers of “because we have to” higher education accreditation

Is compliance leading to improvement?

A pervasive “because we have to” approach to higher education accreditation is contributing to the growing crisis of confidence in the value of college and the degrees it bestows. When faculty and higher education leaders declare “we complied,” it’s probably not good enough.

This is evident in a new Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll, which reveals a troubling gap between what employers want from college graduates and how colleges are preparing students. While nearly all – 96 percent – of chief academic officers surveyed said they are confident they’ve prepared graduates to be successful in the workplace, just 11 percent of business leaders surveyed agreed with that statement.

How can the higher education accreditation process get past the “have to” mentality and ensure that higher education supports quality improvement? Our “Tuning” work provides three lessons for embracing this challenge.

Get out of compliance mode

Unfortunately, in the present culture of ”have to,” no one welcomes an accreditation visit. They are often viewed as the equivalent of enduring a critical family member whom you know, despite your best efforts, will find something wrong. Educational institutions approach accreditation visits with a combination of dread and grief reminiscent of Kubler-Ross’ stages of death and dying: first denial, then anger, which leads to depression, bargaining and finally acceptance. The acceptance stage triggers an unproductive compliance mode: checking boxes, including required language in syllabi and conducting a cursory mapping of coursework to learning outcomes and careers. What gets taught does not significantly change, nor does it really need to once the boxes have been checked.

In contrast, everything changes when faculty across departments, institutions, regions and states come together to collaboratively set standards for what students should know, understand, and accomplish as they progress toward their degrees. It is a much better match for faculty’s zeal for inquiry and doing meaningful work than the current accreditation process.

One professor said: “The (Tuning) collaboration is not just complaining about a situation but doing something as a group to fix the problems. Finding a solution. This is a real chance to make changes instead of just complain about a flawed system.”

Recognize the inside-out imperative

When faculty see the journey toward a degree from the student’s perspective, “Ah ha’s” emerge about what gets taught (or not). For example, whenever we bring together groups of faculty who teach the same discipline but in different institutions (and sometime within the same department), they always discover differences in what they teach and emphasize and come to understand the consequences for students. The discoveries lead to changes in teaching that reinforce, fill voids and add to content taught in other courses. Faculty gain a sharper appreciation for how each course contributes to a student’s knowledge base and preparation for his or her “next steps.”


As institutions of advanced learning and understanding, higher education should not only prepare students for current workforce needs, but careers and challenges of the future. After all, college is not preparing students for their first job, but for a lifetime of jobs that will change many times over the course of that lifetime.

A meaningful accreditation process will examine how teaching, assignments and assessments help students apply what they learn, particularly when students may not know exactly what they want to do.

For example, we examined the career paths of majors like history and psychology in seven states. While popular with students, these majors are often viewed as impractical. We challenged faculty to demonstrate how their courses were relevant in “real life.” The answers came easily. History students learn a way of thinking that delivers value in many ways: relentless about facts, an ability to make sense of primary sources in a world of Wikipedia, see events in context and apply lessons, and are organized thinkers and writers. It’s important for students and faculty to view their education in this light and be able to answer: what are we preparing students for? A competitive workforce and high-functioning society needs graduates who can apply what they know, collaborate, problem solve and lead.

America can ill afford a crisis of confidence in higher education. No one knows this better than those who lead the sector. More than a third of university presidents think higher education is heading in the wrong direction. Barely half predict that the United States will be among the top globally in ten years.

It’s time for accreditation and the higher education system it supports to evolve. To deliver the results our students and taxpayers expect and need, accreditation must apply these three lessons. Doing so leads to more thoughtfully aligned courses and teaching, seamless transfer of credits among institutions, improved completion and increased employer confidence in the graduates they hire.

Brad C. Phillips, is president of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, which facilitates “Tuning USA”- a process that helps establish clarity and consistent standards for what college students should know, understand, and accomplish as they progress toward degrees. “Tuning USA” is an initiative of the Lumina Foundation.

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