Episode 44 - Innovation: Improving the Accreditation Process

The current series of podcasts is focused on innovation, and we’re excited to showcase ideas from various industries and people worldwide. In episode 44, President Scott L Wyatt and Professor Steve Meredith invite Acting Undersecretary of the Department of Education Diane Jones to discuss how the accreditation process can affect innovation and ways to improve that process.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and, as always, I’m joined today in-studio, by President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve.

Meredith: So, in our continuing bunch of podcasts about innovation, we are joined today by somebody from the Department of Education. I heard her speak and the annual meeting of the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities and was so impressed with what she had to say that I think I came right home to your office and said, “We need to get her for the podcast.”

Wyatt: “We need to talk to her.”

Meredith: Yeah, so, why don’t you introduce her?

Wyatt: We’re happy to welcome Diane Jones who is the Acting Under Secretary in the Department of Education. And I think, Diane, you're joining us from your office in Washington, D.C.?

Diane Jones: I am, thanks for inviting me. I’m really happy to be part of the conversation.

Wyatt: So, the world is small. In our brief conversation before, we discovered that your husband’s family is from Logan, Utah, which is where my family is from. It’s where I grew up.

Meredith: A small world.

Wyatt: Small world.

Jones: The world is small.

Wyatt: [Laughs] And then some of your family grew up in southern Idaho and that’s actually where my mother grew up, so I’ll bet you if we spent enough time, we’d find some kind of a connection there.

Meredith: Yep.

Jones: We would. And I’ve spent all of my life on the east coast. I’ve been married for 31 years, and so it’s been fun over those years to get to know another part of the country. And Utah is…you can’t find a more beautiful part of the country, that’s for sure.

Wyatt: Well, we love being here, but we also love visiting the east coast, because we’re in southern Utah and you do trees the way we do red sand. [All laugh]

Meredith: That’s right.

Jones: Right.

Wyatt: Anyway, thank you for joining us. One of the interesting things about accreditation…and maybe for our listeners, it would be helpful for us to provide just a minute introduction about what accreditation does. Of course, the federal government doesn’t do the accreditation, but, is “delegate” the right word to use? They delegate that go kind of a self-accreditation process through regional accreditors?

Jones: That’s right. And we use the word “recognition.” So, we recognize accreditors and then accreditors go out and accredit an institution. And we have both regional accreditors and national accreditors, and that really is just a difference in the geographic scope. All of the accreditors are held to the same standards by us, but they do have different scopes. Some are located in certain regions of the country and then other accreditors cover the entire country.

Wyatt: And there is some accreditation that occurs that’s discipline-specific. So, there will be an organization like organization of business schools or music schools, and we’re not really talking about them. We’re talking mostly about the intuition’s accreditation, not a specific program.

Jones: That’s correct, right. We have institutional accreditors that look at the institution as a whole, and then we have a number of what we call programmatic or specialized accreditors, and right, they would look at individual programs and they really take a much deeper dive into the curriculum in the program because that’s all they’re looking at is the program as opposed to an institutional accreditor takes a very comprehensive look of the entire institution.

Wyatt: Accreditation, the kind that we’re talking about, is extremely important to us. Not every college or university or school has to be accredited, but we do have to be accredited if we want our students to qualify for federal financial aid or loans, Pell grants, any of those kinds of things. So, if we don’t have accreditation, we can still be in business, but we probably won’t have any students come. [All laugh]

Jones: Or you’d have to have a very large endowment. [Laughs] So, there are institutions that don’t participate in Title IV, they find other ways to support students, but for the most part, you’re right. An institution that cannot participate in Title IV has a very hard time surviving. And absent an endowment or Title IV, we have lots of student in the country that wouldn’t be able to participate in higher ed. So, accreditation may be the facilitator, but it’s what it allows the partnership between schools, the federal government and students, so that students who have the aptitude and the ambition and the interest to go to college, even if they don’t have all of the resources—the financial resources—that they need. And so, it really is a wonderful partnership. And the role of accreditation is to make sure that the student and the taxpayer is investing money on the part of the taxpayer, money and time on the part of the student, to attending an institution that has met a quality standard that says, “You know what? This is a worthwhile investment of your time and money. You have a great opportunity here to get a good education.”

Wyatt: Yeah, so it’s a quality check that’s a very important one for us, and we’re proud of our good standing with our accreditation. Sometimes…

Jones: It is a quality…

Wyatt: Oh, go ahead, please.

Jones: It is a quality check. I think there are misperceptions out in the world. I think some people think that accreditation is like a ranking system. So, I think it’s really important to distinguish between accreditation and ranking. Accreditation is about peer-review, continuous improvement, making sure that every student has the opportunity. It’s less about competing with another institution and it’s more about being your best self as an institution. So, I think that’s what distinguishes it from ranking. Certainly, you have to meet certain standards to be accredited, so there is a quality check, but instead of it being a race against another institution like a ranking would be, this is a really serious effort for an institution and an accreditor to have an honest conversation about, “How can this institution be its best self?” and “What could be doing even better to serve our students?” And that’s what’s so important about accreditation, is it is about continuing and continuous improvement. And that’s what’s important to students.

Wyatt: And we put a lot of time into this. We create strategic plans, we define who we think we are and then we work like crazy to measure that.

Meredith: Write great, big reports.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: Like in a test.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Meredith: We write great, big reports. [Both laugh]

Jones: And we like to look at those great, big reports.

Meredith: Yeah.

Jones: You know, we think colleges and universities are constantly talking amongst themselves and with their faculty and with their students about what they’re doing. And we think that institutions are engaged continuously in trying to figure out how to do it better. We think that’s one of the big changes is that this should not be that you have to hire a bunch of consultants and write thousands of pages of reports, this should be a process that comes to look to see what you do all the time anyway. So, we think that accreditation has become too much of a set-aside or separate event, and what it really is about is the day-to-day. What are you doing day-to-day? How are you improving every day? We really want to get away from this idea that it is a snapshot in time or some monumental event, and it’s a continuous process.

Wyatt: I know here at Southern Utah University, we have tried hard to say what we’re going to be accredited by, all of the things that we stand for and we value, that we put into our strategic plan and then our accreditors come and evaluate. We’re doing our very best to make sure that those are certainly what we’re trying to do so that we have one process, which is institutional improvement, student outcomes. Rather than one process that is for us and then one process is for our accreditors. We really want to be productive in what we’re doing. And I think that most schools are trying to do that but sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in, “Well, if they’re going to judge me by this, then I’m going to pick something that’s easy.” And that’s not always accepted, of course, so it’s not always possible, but…So, there is an interesting…in this series, we’ve had a chance to talk to a variety of people and some of them are private business entrepreneurs. And it’s interesting that occasionally, they will say things about, you know, “Government regulation is too much. It’s making it hard for me to be creative and really successful. If you could just reduce some of the government regulations, then I could flourish.” Do you ever hear that about accreditation from colleges and universities? “If there was some way that we could focus this down, that we could flourish more?”

Jones: I do. I hear it almost daily. I hear it from institutions of all kinds, and I find that institutions bring to me different ideas. So, for example, we sometimes hear from small, rural colleges that they’re very small and their environment is very different than a large, regional institution. And so, they feel as though the cost, the cost of the accreditation process is really inhibiting them from doing their best work because it absorbs so much of their budget. Oftentimes, a small institution serving several hundred students is expected to do just as much work as an institution serving 40,000 students. And maybe that’s not appropriate, and maybe we have to look at the level of risk and we have to look at the kind of institution. So, whether it’s institutional size or institutional mission, I think the one thing that I hear among almost all of the institutions that reach out to us is that the focus on the paperwork aspects of accreditation are daunting and probably not worth the time and cost. That there are other ways to look at an institution and for an institution to prove itself, but the daunting task of writing long reports…I think most people have pointed to that as being incredibly cumbersome, incredibly costly and not terribly productive in the long run to their goals.

Wyatt: Yeah, and we’ve talked before about this, but it’s interesting to compare the quantitative and qualitative pieces of this. That sometimes…one of my favorite quotes is, “At the end of our lives, the things that matter the most are those things that you can’t count.” [Laughs] And when I look at my undergraduate experience, the things that changed—that were more transformative for me and prepared me for graduate school and then for my ultimate jobs—the things that prepared me the most were the things that are almost impossible to put on a piece of paper.

Jones: It’s true, I have the same response. When I think about my undergraduate experience, the richness—and I was a first-generation college student, so there were so many things about that experience that were unique and different and frightening and exciting and all of those things. You know, I didn’t have…I was in the same situation as many students. There wasn’t somebody at home that was giving me the right advice or guiding me in the right direction, so there was a lot of discovery. One of the things I learned was that I can be self-reliant and that I can figure it out and that I can navigate bureaucracy. And I think that’s a really important part of the undergraduate experience is developing the independence. Learning that you can do it without your parents, it’s OK to make a mistake, you have to learn how to fix it. So, you know, I think that those are really important parts of the experience. The other thing I would add is…I mean, sure, I learned a lot of content and I learned a lot of methods—I’m a scientist by training—but it’s the people. It’s the people I interacted with—my peers, certainly the faculty—it was the relationships that were such an important part. And oftentimes, the things that have carried me through life the most are the things that took place in conversations outside of the classroom. During the lab, during field work…So, I think the qualitative aspects of a person’s educational experience are really important. And we’ve ignored those because they’re hard to quantify. And so, I hear two things in Washington. On one hand, I hear, “What gets measured gets done” and that’s true.

Wyatt: That’s right.

Jones: And on the other hand, I hear people say…this quote is attributed to Einstein, I’ve never looked it up, I don’t know really if it’s an Einstein quote, but, “Anything that can be measured probably isn’t worth measuring.” [All laugh] So, there are these conflicting views on both sides. I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. So, we are interested in looking at the qualitative outcomes that probably are more meaningful to the student than anything.

Wyatt: Well, we talk about that. “Anything that can be measured maybe shouldn’t be” because we’re talking with students every day, Steve and I, and a good example of that is that if a person sets a goal to go to the gym for 30 minutes a day, they can accomplish that goal and not actually getting anything done because they’re not putting in the effort at the gym. So, “Well what is your real goal?” Well, my goal is something other than just…

Meredith: 30 minutes.

Wyatt:…Sitting in a seat three days a week for 15 weeks of the semester. That’s really not my goal, my goal is learning. And that’s a little bit harder to quantify because we’re all starting in different places and picking up different things.

Jones: Right. Everybody’s learning experience is unique and different, including what everybody hopes to learn from the experience. I taught at a community college for 10 years and, you know, my traditionally aged students oftentimes came with a very different set of learning goals than my non-traditionally aged students. You know, people in their 30s who maybe didn’t go to college right out of high school and this is their second chance, or they find themselves in a life situation where they want to make a new career choice. And so, even among those student who might have been sitting in the same class in front of the same instructors, they came to that classroom oftentimes with very different goals and they both got what they needed. And so, it’s not that I would say one set of goals were more important than the other, they were just different, and as the instructor, my job was to understand all of the goals that my students brought to class and make sure that we could fulfill all of them. And if a student brought a goal to class that we knew we could not fulfill, to be honest about that and to help them find what might be a better fit. If they were not going to be able to make that goal in a particular class, well, let’s find where you might be able to meet that goal. So, it is a very personal experience. It’s a very individualized experience, and the numbers just don’t reflect that. The numbers treat students as this amorphous group of people that exist across the country and they’re all alike. Well, anybody who’s been in a classroom like any parent knows no two are alike. No two students are alike, no two children are alike. So, we have these numbers that try to treat everybody as though they are the same, a clone of one another, and then we have the reality where what we really celebrate about people is that each one of them is so unique and different. So, now, we have to take those two ideas and merge them and understand that when we’re looking at schools and students, it’s about the sum total of individual lives, not about some average number that I can calculate because I know how to divide but that would assume everybody in that population is exactly the same. And it’s…

Wyatt: Yeah, here’s…

Jones: We’ve done that for an awful long time and it’s just not appropriate.

Wyatt: We’ve got a great example. Steve is a musician…

Meredith: That’s right.

Wyatt: And a fine singer.

Meredith: [Laughs]

Wyatt: But a person might take physics because that person wants to become an engineer and has a bunch of foundational concepts that she needs to understand before she can advance to the next class, and someone else might be in that same class because she wants to understand how sound is made.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And so, their goals are very different and what will help them be successful in life is very different. And if we measure everybody the same, then one might not get actually what she wants or what he wants. Or needs. Anyway, it’s an interesting…

Meredith: Yeah, it is. That “taking from the very personal and then extrapolating it outward through an accreditation process” is difficult, at best. And Diane, one of the things that so impressed me about your keynote at our recent annual meeting for NWCCU, which is our accrediting body, was your forthright declaration that perhaps this process had become over-broad and that it was, in fact, a barrier to innovation and change or to the unique nature of each institution. That it fostered a “sameness” that was maybe not in our best interest or in the student’s best interest. And since you’re in a position to affect change there—and I know you probably can’t go into great detail about any changes that are coming—but, what are you working on in the Office of Education to help people get back in their lanes a little bit? If that’s the right way to say it?

Jones: It is. So, we have a two-prong…well, actually, there’s a three-prong approach. Certainly, to make vast changes, fundamental changes about the role of accreditation would require a statutory change, and that’s up to Congress. And so, we hear some people who say, “We ought to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch.” Well, I don’t know if that’s a good idea or a bad idea, but it’s not within the realm of possibility because only Congress could make such a dramatic change. So, there’s…you know, the Legislative pass. And there’s regulations. So, under each law, the department has regulations, too many pages of them in my opinion, but this is where we explain to institutions how they comply with the law in the day-to-day, the practical, what does that law mean in terms of your day-to-day interactions with students? And we’re getting ready to embark upon a process called Negotiated Rule-Making—and that will start in January—and this is where we bring in stakeholders from across the community in a very formal process to take feedback and input and we literally negotiate with the community to try to come up with a new set of regulations that everybody can agree to being the right regulations. And, you know, there’s give and take, and probably no stakeholder walks away with everything they want. The idea of trying to get to a consensus position is that, you know, if you can get consensus, you’re probably pretty close to where you should be. Probably a pretty good way to get to a solution. So, that’s a long process and it takes well over a year for regulatory changes to be put in place, but we’re embarking upon that process. But in the meantime, a lot of what drives the accreditation process isn’t in statute and it isn’t in in regs, it’s driven by the behavior of the department and the way that the department interacts with the accreditors and the way that it holds accreditors accountable. And there has been, over the last decade or so, the development of an adversarial relationship between accreditors and the department where there’s almost a “gotcha” mentality. I hear accreditors, when they talk about when they come before the board that evaluates them at the department, that they’re “sitting in the hot seat.” Well, I don’t think that it was ever intended to be this adversarial process. So, what we can do and what we are doing right away is renewing the partnership to say, “Yes, there’s accountability on both sides, but let’s engage in a productive dialogue. Let’s figure out how to do this fast, but without the ‘gotchas.’” And I think the “gotcha” mentality has really locked accreditors into these very narrow ranges of tolerance, maybe, is the right way to describe it. Because what happens is when they come before this board, people don’t talk about what they do 90% of the time. There’s not a lot of conversation about, “Well, what do you do 90% of the time?” or “90% of the time, how do you know an institution is compliant?” What happens is when they get before this board and everybody is trying to find some deep, dark, hidden secret which is the one-off, the 10%, and then that 10% becomes the focus of the conversation. I think accreditors are so afraid of what might get found that they put everybody into this very narrowly described box or range of tolerance and then that squelches innovation. And so, in the short run, we’re really trying to renew the partnership and get back to the 90% and then in the middle range is create new regulations that we think focus more on the student experience and less on administration and bureaucracy. And then, you know, we look to Congress to do the large, sweeping changes through the legislative process.

Meredith: That’s interesting. You had mentioned in the rule-making, the upcoming rule-making process, that there will be a group of stakeholders. We’ve seen such a change in higher education of the type of student that we see. For example, there are a number of colleges and universities that have greatly expanded their online programs and now, their average student age is mid-30s and mid-career and so forth…as, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but as people get together in this rule-making process, are we taking voices that are outside of perhaps the Ivy League elite experience that at least many folks think that is what drive educational policy? Is there a wide range of voices at that table?

Jones: There are a wide range. We will be announcing who those voices are in the coming days. Off the top of my head, I don’t think we have a representative from any Ivy League college. I could be wrong about that, I’d have to go back and look, but for the most part, the people who come to the negotiating table, they represent all kinds of institutions, they represent students, we have…this is a rare thing, we actually have an employer who will be at the table. We have not, in the past, included employers, but because we’re talking about, in some cases, programs that need to be very responsive to workforce, we need an employer at the table. We think that colleges may even need different decision-making processes on the inside, on the inside of the institution when you’re looking at an occupationally focused program versus a program in the liberal arts. So, we have an employer coming to the table and we haven’t done that very often. So, we do think that the stakeholders really represent a very broad group of stakeholders. The other thing we’ve done with this rule-making is we have a group of people who vote and who actually negotiate, but we are also bringing together three sub-committees of stakeholders who can dialogue in more depth about some of these issues and then make a recommendation to the negotiators. So, instead of having—I’m going to throw a number out—instead of 20 people involved in the negotiation, we’ll be at well over 40 because we now have sub-committees. So, we’ve tried to broaden the number and kinds of stakeholders that are represented. But, I believe that when you see the names, you will see that we have a very good cross-section of higher ed that represents institutions of all kinds. And that’s the idea is to not give any one type of institution or any one stakeholder too much of the voice. It needs to be shared voices.

Wyatt: Well, this is a fun process. It will be exciting for us to see how it plays out.

Meredith: Yeah. We’d like to reserve the right to have you join us again after the rule-making process, would that be OK?

Jones: That would be wonderful. Yeah, it is a fascinating process. You know, it’s a lot of work, but it is a fascinating process and I think when done well and when people come to the negotiating table with the intention of trying to find a place of consensus, good things can happen. And we certainly are coming to the table intending to find the point of consensus.

Wyatt: Well, and we look forward to, as you’ve described, the focus being on what it is that we want to achieve rather than just a bunch of regulations that may or may not be connected to the outcomes that we are seeking as institutions.

Meredith: Yes, and I can tell you as the accreditation director for our institutions, I’m rooting for fewer reports, so you have my vote, Diane. [Both laugh] I’m excited about anything that slims down that process a little bit.

Jones: I haven’t met a single person in this process yet that has said to me, “Oh, shucks, Diane, I actually really love writing big reports.” [All laugh] And it’s not just on the outside. When accreditors submit their petitions to us to be recognized, I mean, we had one recently that was 60,000 pages I’m told.

Meredith: Oh, my gosh.

Jones: 60,000 pages. And when I…and I obviously didn’t count the pages, so maybe it was 40,000, maybe it was 50,000, but the staff and the accreditor said it was 60,000 pages. When I hear something like that, what that signals to me is we haven’t been clear enough about what matters, which puts accreditors in a situation of feeling like they’ve got to throw in everything plus the kitchen sink hoping that at least one of those things is what we were looking for. So, when I heard “60,000 pages” I thought, “Well that means that we haven’t been clear enough about what matters. Because nobody should have to spend time uploading 60,000 pages and it’s not humanly possible for us to thoroughly and adequately review 60,000…I would rather have 200 pages that I can really digest than 60,000 pages that may have a “gotcha” moment somewhere in there. I’m not interested in the “gotcha” moment, but I am interested in the accountability and strong performance. But I’m not interested in finding the one-off, the “gotcha.”

Wyatt: Well, and we...I think that—at least all the institutions I know of—we really are happy to be held accountable and have people come in and examine what we’re doing because frankly, we’re proud of what we’re doing, and we’re excited about it and it helps motivate us to know that somebody is watching. So, we like that.

Meredith: We do.

Wyatt: But there is a level of reasonableness in these reports and to the extent which we get off the core mission of our institutions.

Meredith: Right.

Jones: That’s right. I do think the process is incredibly valuable. I’ve been through many accreditation reviews and each one of them is incredibly invaluable to the institution. But, you know, the other trend that I’ve seen is…so, there’s been a lot of focus on transparency. We certainly love transparency, everybody does, but the one thing I’ve noticed as maybe the unintended negative consequence is when we have such a focus on “put everything in writing” and then everybody wants to review what’s in writing. I think the other trend I’ve noticed is that I think site visit teams are less willing to highlight areas that may be slightly problematic—not a horrible problem…you know, it used to be that a site team would say, “We found this thing” or “We found this issue and it’s not a problem, but we really think you should keep an eye on it because we have some concerns.” You know, it used to be that site visitors would say that to institutions.

Meredith: Yep.

Jones: Well, with the intense scrutiny, site visit teams oftentimes will not share that kind of information because then the question is going to be, “Well, why did you pass that institution if everything wasn’t 100%?” Well, we pass a lot of students who get 70s and 80s. So, I actually think that in many ways, the focus on transparency and accountability has many good intentions and many good outcomes, but I have noticed over time that some of what used to be the most helpful, which is identifying little problems before they became big problems, we’re losing some of that because the people are worried about the unintended consequences. I’d like to get back to a time when the site visit team and the institution can have a frank and honest conversation including pointing out things that aren’t really a problem but maybe are worthy of additional attention. And I do worry that we’ve lost some of that, and that I’d love to restore.

Wyatt: We look forward to it. Thank you so much, and it’s been a delight visiting today.

Jones: Oh, it’s great having a conversation with you. I’ve enjoyed it, and I look forward to following up when we are further along in our rule-making.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guest today from her office in Washington Diane Auer Jones who is the acting Under Secretary of Education. And we are delighted that she was able to join us, we’re delighted to have you, our listeners, join us and we look forward to seeing you again soon. Bye bye.