Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) Annual Meeting Suggests a Sea Change in Standards Coming

Roseman University, as primarily a graduate-level health sciences institution, holds a number of different accreditations specific to each of its programs. The programmatic accrediting bodies have varying standards and outcomes for each profession which govern and shape the curriculum of each program and how it’s delivered. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), as an example, accredits dental schools and dental education programs. Operating autonomously, CODA was established in 1975 and is nationally recognized by the United States Department of Education (DOE). Health sciences programs each carry their own accreditations from their respective accrediting body, so as to define standards of acceptable operation and performance and measure compliance with them.

Regional accrediting bodies, of which there are seven across the country, are responsible for accrediting roughly 3,000 of the nation’s colleges and universities, and the process, used by higher education to evaluate a diverse mix of institutions, is meant to assess quality and efforts toward continuous quality improvement. While the seven regional accreditors focus on geographic regions, each region reflects vast differences among the institutions within it, with both degree-granting non-profit and for-profit institutions, two and four-year schools, completely online and traditional bricks and mortar institutions.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities accredits institutions across Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, with 163 member institutions in total.  These range from large public state institutions like the University of Oregon to small private ones like The Art Institute of Seattle to Tribal colleges, like Stone Child and Little Big Horn College.  Institutions do not need to be accredited however, accreditation also qualifies institutions for access to Title IV federal funds to support teaching, research, and student financial aid.  NWCCU is recognized by the DOE as the authority on educational quality and institutional effectiveness across the Northwest.

The conversation around Higher Education is continually evolving, most recently shaped by economic shifts and the issue of the “relevance” of a college or graduate degree amidst rising student debt and the need for today’s skill sets to serve dynamic professions. In addition, for-profit institutions and new online schools create new paths forward, resulting in an overall “perfect storm” for the DOE to question and recast its role of oversight. The accrediting bodies, by way of the DOE, carry out these shifts and look for ways to standardize the accreditation process in such a way that all schools meet acceptable levels of quality. Standards are created and they evolve as the higher education landscape evolves. The NWCCU’s annual meeting this past November focused on the vast changes in the higher education world and how dramatically different institutions will meet very different demands, while at the same time, achieving levels of quality that meet “standards.”

Within a few months of his presidency, Sonny Ramaswamy, President of NWCCU and former Director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, announced that a new strategy was being employed, one that included opportunity for stakeholder input, reflections and conversations, and one that could result in a sea change around standards in accreditation. Following a comprehensive quantitative survey, this fall a listening tour across the region via “Town Hall” meetings uncovered that while institutions were committed to “Core Themes” as a way to express mission fulfillment and to anchor measurement of mission fulfillment through these themes, the process and communication needs streamlining. The focus of the Commission was also to be considered. Should high performing institutions be measured the same way, and as frequently as lower-performing schools, and thus require the same amount of reporting and attention from the Commission? Could processes be streamlined, and could communication from the Commission provide more insight and support? How can diverse schools with very different student populations and environmental factors be measured exactly the same way?

Perhaps one of the most moving speakers was Diane Auer Jones, Principal Deputy Under Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. Under Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, Diane Auer Jones is driving a mission close to her heart, that of improved opportunities for all students. Believing that the department needs to move away from a punitive relationship with institutions, “Rethink Education”, (hey, that sounds familiar!) the Secretary’s new agenda, asserts that we need to rethink everything in both standards and rule-making.  In rethinking everything, the DOE could create a system that is more open to innovation, less prescriptive, and more fitting with the complexities that exist. And that bright line standards may be blinding us from seeing and appreciating the complexities and relationships that exist among institutions, programs and students.  Other noteworthy speakers included Chris Bunio, Senior Director for Higher Education at Microsoft, Scott Pulsipher, President, Western Governors University and Matt Campbell from Pierce College, a community college outside of Seattle.

Of these various presentations and different perspectives came some common themes or perhaps fundamental truths. The higher education landscape is changing. Today’s student is not what they were twenty or even ten years ago. Innovation has taken hold. And with these subtleties we cannot create a set of standards that tries to fit each institution into a box. Institutions serve varying populations and needs, and so they must be true to their missions, serve their populations well, and oversight must guide, support, engender trust and inspire quality for all students.

Author
Vanessa Maniago
Special Advisor to the President
Roseman University of Health Sciences