Accreditation or Audits: How can higher ed prove its value?

20459074865_5ffe61d05a_zIn a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, author Goldie Blumenstyk presented the case for business-style audits of university learning outcomes claims. As recently as 2013, a bipartisan congressional panel heaped doubt on the accreditation process, one of the chief concerns being the fear that higher education was changing faster than its disparate accreditation bodies could keep up with.

The pace of change in the modern knowledge economy is forcing colleges and universities around the country to look at how they deliver the best learning outcomes to their students. One of the most common complaints levied against accreditation as it exists today is that it is input- rather than output-focused. Resources input by the institution are now seen as less important than the positive outcomes schools can prove when it comes to their students.

Accreditation is well-suited when it comes to establishing baseline standards in an industry, but few would argue that emphasizing faculty experience means anything if students learning from those instructors aren’t equipped to succeed in today’s workforce upon graduating. A wealth of library resources is a fine thing too, unless students aren’t learning how to perform competent research.

When done well, audits are also more conducive to closing the assessment loop, where gaps and weaknesses are identified and plans are put in place to improve those areas. As Brendan LeBlanc, a partner at Ernst & Young explains, “the key is to find criteria that are objective, measurable, relevant, and complete.”

According to several studies in recent years, higher education is not adequately preparing students to enter the workforce. One study showed that 60% of employers surveyed reported that new grads lacked adequate critical thinking skills. There is an opportunity for forward-looking schools to meet some of these basic demands by investing in outcome-oriented critical thinking instruction.

In the next few years, the ability to assess weaknesses, provide the skills necessary to fill those gaps, and measure results objectively will determine which schools thrive in the 21st century and which institutions are left behind.