The US system of regional accreditation may not survive the trend for online degrees, says Geoffrey Alderman.
Last autumn, the eight regional commissions that accredit higher-education institutions in the United States - the "regionals" - jointly published a draft statement and guidelines on the evaluation of electronically offered degree and certificate programmes.
It is intended that the eight commissions will adopt the draft as a common standard by which each of them will evaluate such programmes in the future. By agreeing to a shared approach to this type of distance education, the regionals have signalled a revolution in the quality assurance of higher education.
Historically, the development of regional accreditation in the US reflected the two fundamental precepts that have hitherto governed the quality assurance process in higher education. The first emphasises the importance of high standards. The second stresses the importance of institutional autonomy.
The federal administration in Washington has historically played no part in the accreditation of higher education institutions or in their quality assurance. American universities and colleges derive their degree-awarding powers from state governments, which alone have the authority to bestow charters.
But, save for special arrangements in the state of New York, the task of monitoring the quality of education provided and the standard of the awards made has fallen to voluntary, non-governmental bodies, wholly owned and managed by the institutions -the regional accrediting commissions.
Regional accreditation developed during the mid-20th century as a means of safeguarding the reputation of bona fide institutions when there was a mushrooming of bogus degree mills. Working in comparative isolation, each commission developed its own approach to quality assurance and was fiercely protective of its domain.
In 1949, a National Commission on Accreditation was established as the first national organisation to develop threshold criteria governing the work of accrediting bodies. In 1975, the National Commission merged with the Federation of Regional Accrediting Commissions of Higher Education to form the Council on Post-secondary Accreditation. But this attempt to combine the interests of degree and non-degree awarding bodies proved unsuccessful, and in 1993, the council was dissolved. Three years later, the Council on Higher Education Accreditation came into existence.
Regional accreditation was and is an expression of academic self-regulation and institutional autonomy. But a number of pressures are combining to question its future worth and relevance.
The World Trade Organisation has estimated that the US accounts for about $8.5 billion (£5.9 billion) of the $ billion annual value of international trade in education. But in Washington last September, a conference held under the auspices of the National Committee for International Trade in Education was told that the US was losing its share of this market. Reasons given included the inability and/or unwillingness of the regional commissions to contemplate and sanction novel forms of franchising in international collaboration and frustration on the part of overseas institutions at having to deal with several different accrediting agencies.
Traditionally, the regionals have accredited institutions, not individual programmes of study. But, as the draft statement and guidelines declare, the application of new technologies to education has resulted in "unprecedented cooperative agreements and configurations" among accredited institutions as well as with "entities outside the academy".
The draft statement goes on to make an astonishing admission: that "technologically mediated instruction (that is) not location dependent raises questions about the suitability of the regional approach to quality assurance".
The document says that the need for "a significant degree of cross-regional consistency" creates pressure for a "collaborative approach" that takes account of the fact that others, particularly states and the federal government, have a substantial voice in addressing quality assurance issues relating to distance education.
If, as some American pundits predict, something in the region of half of American higher education is electronically delivered by the end of 2025, the regional approach to quality assurance is bound to come under great pressure. That pressure could become intolerable if (as seems likely) electronic delivery develops into a partnership between institutions and the for-profit sector.
Regional accrediting commissions have little if any experience of interfacing with for-profit corporations. If such a corporation agrees to undergo inspection by a regional commission, and to pay for the privilege, it is bound to ask for a seat on the commission as a quid pro quo ("no taxation without representation"). And if for-profit corporations begin to sit on the commissions, the regional nature of accreditation in the US will soon come to be seen as utterly anachronistic.
One solution would be to replace the eight regional bodies with a single, federal entity. My guess is that the federalisation of US quality assurance would be fiercely resisted in certain quarters. It certainly could not be imposed from above.
Another solution is to encourage greater cooperation among the regionals and to urge them to adopt common policies. If the regionals begin to adopt absolutely identical policies and procedures, their continued separate existence, and cost, is bound to come under ever-greater scrutiny. Economics alone might seal their fate.
Geoffrey Alderman is vice-president of Touro College, New York.