Michael K.J. Milligan, Executive Director and CEO Larry Jones, President
Accreditation systems and organizations in the United States have recently encountered unprecedented criticism from federal policymakers, presidential candidates and a range of public commentators. As they question the value we provide, we are committed to correcting any misconceptions and using these opportunities to convey a more accurate depiction of our accreditation.
With that in mind, the purposes of this message are:
- to make sure you are aware of the public dialog, which will assuredly continue for years to come;
- to make you aware of steps we have taken–and will take–to protect our legitimate interest and public standing in the wake of repeated and sometimes deliberate misstatements of fact by a few elected officials, media outlets and think tanks; and
- to provide you with simple talking points you can use when engaged in discussions about accreditation with colleagues, employers and others in your professional circle who may have questions about your ABET activities.
The critical statements about accreditation occur in the context of lengthy Congressional deliberations over renewal of the Higher Education Act, which is the primary piece of federal law impacting colleges and universities, and a larger public dialog about the price of attending college and its economic return, both for individuals and society as a whole.
Characterizations of accreditation range from: a) assertions that it is a failed regulatory system that has not protected students and taxpayers from institutions engaged in manipulative and deceptive admissions practices, which do not offer rigorous curricula, but saddle students with high levels of debt without offering the knowledge and skills valued by employers; to b) concerns that accreditors operate as self-dealing cartels that protect the economic models and instructional techniques of established institutions, while driving out “educational entrepreneurs” and keeping tuition and fees at inaccessible levels. For those of you who have not tracked this coverage, a small sample of articles are below.
- The Watchdogs of College Education Rarely Bite – WSJ (PDF)
- Trust Busting Higher Ed – WSJ (PDF)
- Obama Targets Accreditors – WSJ (PDF)
While virtually all of the negative comments have been aimed at the regional groups that accredit entire institutions, few, if any, distinguish professional and specialized accreditors such as ABET. (In the words of one Senate HELP Committee staffer “there are about five people on Capitol Hill that know the difference.”) Public commentary has also obscured differences between accrediting groups recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as Title IV “gatekeepers,” and others—like ABET—who choose not to be subject to DoE oversight, since we have no role in monitoring an institution’s compliance with federal student loan program requirements.
What are the Criticisms?
From the political “left”, accreditation is understood to be a regulatory process. In addition to the concerns that the “regulation” has failed, especially with respect to several large for-profit institutions, critics charge that accreditation processes lack transparency, that the reasons for negative accreditation decisions and the supporting documentation are not disclosed to the public. They also argue that each accrediting organization uses its own unique jargon, which makes criteria, procedures and decisions virtually incomprehensible to the public.
From the political “right”, the “cartel” assertion provides a platform for other charges, including that accreditation teams are comprised entirely of academics who perform (at best) cursory reviews, with the expectation that their institutions/programs will receive similar favors in return; that the membership of accreditation organizations is comprised of higher education institutions, and thus has built-in conflicts-of-interest; that accreditation is completely disconnected from the needs and expectations of employers; and that accrediting agencies have worked to discourage online programs, competency-based programs, and certificate programs that would allow more students to earn a degree or other credential more quickly and at less cost.
From both political perspectives, educational “quality” is defined in terms of cost to students, graduation rates, student debt levels and job placement rates. The ABET definition of “quality” in terms of alignment between the knowledge and skills of graduates with the needs and expectations of the profession is largely unknown in policy circles.
Why Does This Matter to ABET?
As ABET is not recognized by the Department of Education, we are not subject to any current provisions of the Higher Education Act. However, provisions of the Act typically evolve into requirements maintained by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which does provide recognition to ABET. Thus, plausible new requirements to make public disclosure of accreditation documents and decisions, or to collect and use data on job placement and starting salaries of new graduates, could eventually impact our activities.
Perhaps more important (and more likely), the current wave of public criticism of accreditation has been met with almost no meaningful rebuttal by CHEA, the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA) or by individual accreditors, none of whom have the staff capacity, financial resources or experience to engage in sustained federal lobbying or national public relations efforts.
Unless initiatives to correct the public record and offer differing perspectives about accreditation occur, we believe that ABET risks losing the support that it has historically enjoyed from employers (who both hire graduates from our accredited programs, and are an important source of PEVs), and from university and college trustees (many of whom are political appointees and often tied to the doctrine-driven agendas of accreditation critics).
Status of the Higher Education Act
The Higher Education Act was first enacted in 1965, and is renewed every five years. The most recent renewal occurred in 2008, but general congressional dysfunction and competing legislative priorities have delayed renewal for two years. As a practical matter, the looming 2016 elections may serve to again delay congressional action. The possibility that control of the Senate may shift political parties in the year ahead adds another layer of uncertainty to the legislative outlook.
Anticipating congressional inaction, President Obama recently issued an executive order that requires DoE-recognized accreditors to: 1) inform the public when schools are placed on probation; 2) make public disclosure of the reasons for negative accreditation actions; 3) publish key student outcome measures for each school it accredits; and 4) move toward greater use of outcome measures.
An ABET public policy advisory committee, comprised of five officers and Board members, was formed in 2014 to monitor legislative developments related to accreditation. Additional senior staff resources have also been allocated to this activity. Because ABET does not have its own legislative advocacy function, we have sought and will seek to work in cooperation with other higher education groups who do. In addition, we will seek out assistance from our member societies who have a Washington lobbying function, and—through the ABET Industry Advisory Council—seek the support of major employers who value ABET accreditation and have a Washington presence. As necessary, we will also ask individual ABET Officers and Experts to meet with their elected officials, especially those serving on relevant Senate and House committees.
Until now, our response to inaccurate and unbalanced media coverage has been confined to submitting letters to the editor. While several of these have been published, the impact of this reactive strategy is limited. At present, the Board of Directors has identified public perception of accreditation as a significant strategic issue for the organization. In January, the Directors anticipate acting on a long-term public outreach campaign that will include a media component.
What You Can Say
It is essential that our ABET Experts and stakeholders understand—and can articulate—the distinguishing characteristics of our process to accreditation critics. Some of the key points to make:
- Because ABET is not a Title IV “gatekeeper”, our process must meet a market test every day. More than 3,500 academic programs at 714 institutions in 29 countries voluntarily seek and maintain ABET accreditation because of the value it provides.
- Major employers (e.g.: Boeing, Caterpillar, DuPont, IBM, Raytheon, UPS and many others) play a significant and ongoing role in developing and applying ABET accreditation criteria. More than 30 widely recognized professional and technical societies help select and assign accreditation evaluators. These inputs, as well as strict conflict-of-interest requirements, assure that ABET accreditation is rigorous, and that evaluators do not trade favors with respect to accreditation reviews.
- We (and many other specialized and professional accreditors) adopted outcome-based accreditation criteria a generation ago. Assertions by critics that accreditors “count books in the library” are factually incorrect.
- Our accredited programs continue to embrace a variety of innovations with respect to applied and project-based learning, as well as online delivery. Assertions that our accreditation has inhibited educational “innovation” are incorrect.
- We require accredited programs to systematically use performance data they collect as part of the review process to achieve learning outcomes, without proscribing the tactics for doing so.
- Our accreditation is ISO 9001 certified, an important external validation that the processes we use are both efficient and effective.
Every member of our community has devoted significant time and intellectual capital to improving our accreditation processes, and extending our reach to institutions and programs around the globe. ABET Experts have every reason to be proud of their service and of our achievements. You have the right to expect that we will engage in communication and advocacy efforts to correct the public record and respond to uninformed and/or politically-driven attacks.
We will continue to keep you apprised of developments in the federal policy and media space on this issue, and our response to them. If we can provide any additional information to you, or if you have contact with elected officials regarding federal accreditation policies, do not hesitate to let us know about it. Chuck Hickman, Managing Director of Constituent Relations (firstname.lastname@example.org), is coordinating ABET activities in this area, and should be your primary point of contact.
Thanks for your support of ABET.
Michael K.J. Milligan, Executive Director and CEO
Larry Jones, President