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Planning for: Changes in Accreditation

Published October 2, 2020
By Stephen G. Pelletier

Interview with Lynn Priddy, Executive Advisor and Provost Emeritus, National American University

Under the headline “The Geography of Accreditation,” one of the articles in the Fall 2020 edition of Trends in Higher Education noted that some accrediting bodies are capitalizing on loosening regulations to extend their purview beyond their traditional regions. But that’s not the only change taking place in accreditation today. This essential component of higher education is evolving to acclimate to the rapid growth of institutional partnerships and mergers. Another factor affecting accreditation is the significant economic pressure that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought on colleges and universities.

For some perspective on these challenges and opportunities, we interviewed Lynn Priddy, a university administrator with considerable expertise in accreditation. From 1999 through 2013, Dr. Priddy served in multiple roles at the Higher Learning Commission, capping her tenure there as vice president of accreditation services. She went on to be provost of National American University, an institution she serves today as executive advisor and provost emeritus. Dr. Priddy edited the SCUP Collection Employing Accreditation to Strengthen Planning and Drive Improvement, a collection of resources focused on accreditation.


What two or three major changes do you see in the landscape for accreditation?

The immediate changes are clear and reflect longstanding conversations. First, significant numbers of institutions are in financial distress and many will close. The oversight of closures, mergers, changes of control, and acquisitions routinely involves more than one state agency, external oversight agencies, and accreditor. One challenge in this regard is that while regional accreditors meet together to ensure alignment of policies, they do not have a coordinated approach to address institutions in crisis.

A related, overarching challenge is that institutions in trouble absorb accreditor time. This leaves little capacity for agencies to respond with policies and processes for new collaborations, partnerships, acquisitions, enterprise development, and other innovations. Well-resourced institutions are expanding rapidly into immersive online environments, robots, augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, new learning management systems, and integration with corporate training and credentialing, all of which are quickly revolutionizing the college experience. Accreditation criteria and substantive change processes struggle to accommodate this innovation in timeframes that serve institutions.

The recent changes allowed by the Department of Education in the potential scope of regional accreditors reopens a three-decade discussion both on their geographical boundaries and overall missions. Competition may be good, but it raises questions. Should regional accreditors be national? Should there be a confederation of the regionals? Should they individually focus on a specific type of institution (e.g., liberal arts, for-profit, community college, international, research university, tribal, etc.)? Whether it’s opportunity or debacle is yet to be seen.

How might those changes affect colleges and universities?

The changes will impact different types of institutions and types of students in different ways. Innovations among thriving, financially stable institutions may also spark a need for different accreditation policies and practices to allow for emerging practice. Struggling institutions need immediate intervention; i.e., processes that take 3-5 months, not 12-18 or more. Institutions keeping the pulse on accreditor changes may now choose to “jump” to the one most aligned with their own mission, vision, educational enterprise, and students.

Perhaps the one common impact on all institutions and accreditors will be confusion in the near term. The combination of social unrest, the pandemic, technological advancements, and politicization will continue to leave many institutions “navigating the whitewater” for many years, with some simply hanging on to survive versus proactively reinventing to thrive.

What can institutions do now to prepare for those changes?

First, institutions need to look hard at their sustainability and to invest in the talent necessary to remain viable or to become distinctive and innovative. Someone at every institution needs to be on top of continual changes and opportunities in accreditation—and advise when to take advantage of them.

Second, institutions need to look starkly at their finances, enrollment, organizational structures, ability to meet accounts payables, and student populations. If there is even a possibility of financial crisis within three years, the board needs to be proactive, consulting with the institutional/regional accreditor on options for turnaround.

What else do colleges and universities need to know about changing trends in accreditation?

Opportunity abounds. Thriving institutions with the requisite resources have new opportunities to innovate ways, means, and modes to provide better access and higher levels of achieved learning. These institutions set the pace and accreditation and peer review must adapt. Institutions—perhaps in different arrangements and definitions and with accreditation in different arrangements and configurations—need to establish accountability for the right college/learning experience at the right time fit for diverse types of students. That’s a simplified answer to a very complex environment, but the comprehensive answer would require a book-length investigation.


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