Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU
Post-secondary education continues to be worth the investment; indeed, college graduates earn on average almost twice as much as do high school graduates, have greater career mobility, are healthier, and realize a better quality of life. In addition, higher education has been demonstrated to facilitate social and economic mobility.
While the core mission of higher education remains the same as it has for decades, colleges and universities in America are facing an unprecedented array of challenges and threats. These include, but not limited to, demographic challenges, escalating inequities and poor outcomes for students from disadvantaged communities, declining enrollments, budget constraints, increasing cost of education, the student debt crisis, competition and alternatives to traditional colleges, impact of technology, including generative artificial intelligence, on the educational enterprise, issues related to free speech and academic freedom, and last, but not least, the fraught political environment. Exacerbating the impacts of these challenges is the loss of “free” money from the federal government for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of having to deal with the long term physical and mental health effects of SARS-CoV2, and the increasing cost of ensuring campuses are climate resilient.
Despite these challenges, the value proposition of higher education continues to remain strong, because our nation’s knowledge economy and global competition require an educated and skilled workforce.
Accreditation as we know it, i.e., the peer review process of validating degrees awarded by higher education, has been in existence in the United States since the late 19th Century. Since 1952, the peer review and accreditation process to measure institutional quality became formalized and the federal government began recognizing accreditors. Following creation of the U.S. Department of Education in 1979, the nationally recognized accrediting agencies were determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training provided by accredited institutions of higher education.
During the ensuing decades, particularly in the last few years, accreditation has morphed from a compliance focus to a student outcomes focus. However, we see the value of accreditation being questioned by various entities that represent the continuum of the American political spectrum. Indeed, we have seen recent headlines trumpeting accreditors are a barrier to higher education reform, that the key is to bring in free-market principles to reform accreditation, and that accreditation is the “work of Satan.” Just this year, we have seen organizations and politicians have referred to accrediting agencies as cartels that are pushing a “woke “ideology. Some have stated that existing accrediting bodies should be eliminated, and new ones created.
It is unfortunate that the value of higher education and accreditation – both of which have been critical for America’s global reputation and competitiveness – is being attacked. We are at a seminal moment, when these enterprises need to reclaim their reputation and role in society.
The key to achieving viability and sustainability is for colleges and universities to demonstrate the value proposition of higher education – student outcomes – to the American public. This will require us to reimagine and reengineer higher education, so it is laser-focused on student success and closure of equity gaps, while ensuring accountability and transparency.
Similarly, accreditation needs to be reimagined and reengineered to support higher education by: holding institutions accountable; promoting innovations, experimentation, and risk taking; supporting deployment of a risk-based accreditation system; developing and deploying alternative reaffirmation processes; encouraging institutions to leverage technology in support of efforts to increase student achievement and success; accommodating and recognizing new and emerging educational models, including alternative credentialing, badges, competency-based education, certificate programs, and other such approaches; promoting data and evidence-informed approaches for continuous improvement in educational outcomes; simplifying reporting; mentoring by staff liaisons and experienced evaluators; promoting strong and effective training and education on accreditation, assessment, and student learning outcomes; improving communications; and enhancing transparency.
Despite the challenges noted above, there is a path forward, so long as we are singularly focused on delivering on the value proposition – student outcomes – of higher education and accreditation. The decisions we make now will determine our future success. Described below are some of the challenges that we need to be aware of and potential paths forward.
The value proposition, i.e., of success and reputation, is likely the most important challenge and opportunity that institutions and accreditors must focus on. Urgently.
Delivering on the value proposition by colleges and universities, based on a renewed and vigorous commitment to student success, is in promoting ways, i.e., focusing on the raison d’etre of higher education, to enhance graduation/completion rates while closing equity gaps. It will also require promoting improvements to learning, building upon the skills of students to serve in a competitive and changing world, reducing the cost of education, and helping students achieve their aspirations.
Declining enrollments, budget reductions, direct costs for dealing with post-pandemic needs, and other challenges being experienced today by American higher education are not too dissimilar to previous such threats. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to linger for years, if not decades. Accordingly, absent a strategic approach to deal with the potential long-term consequences now, they could be far more consequential to the fiscal health of institutions.
The drumbeat of institutions reducing their footprints, closing, merging, or forming confederated partnerships, which started well before the pandemic, has become more urgent and incessant. This requires institutions to devise well thought out plans to ensure their viability and sustainability.
The key to achieving viability and sustainability is for colleges and universities to focus singularly on demonstrating the value proposition of higher education, i.e., student outcomes. This requires a reimagining and reengineering of higher education, laser-focused on student success and closure of equity gaps, while ensuring accountability and transparency. Institutions that pivot to innovations that contribute to positive student outcomes will likely meet and overcome extant threats.
The changing demographics in America, exacerbated by poor political decisions and the COVID-19 pandemic, present another challenge for colleges and universities.
For example, the decline in birth rates triggered by the Great Recession of 2008 is projected to create sharp reductions in enrollments of traditional college-age students starting in 2025, referred to by some as the demographic cliff.
A second demographic cliff, because of low birth rates during the COVID-19 pandemic (fertility rates of 1.779, 1.781, and 1.782 in 2020, 2021, and 2022, respectively), is projected to result in 300,000 to 500,000 fewer children in America. According to a report published by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), the impacts on higher education may not be quite as serious, at least through the early 2030s. However, WICHE projects that declines past 2033 are likely to be amplified because of the birth declines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enrollment declines have been occurring in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which only exacerbated enrollment declines during the last three years, resulting in one million fewer students during the pandemic. A complete rebound in enrollments remains to be seen. The National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) projections show that, at least until 2025, high school graduates will continue to increase. Hopefully that translates into more college bound students, which is not a guarantee. Surveys suggest fewer than half the high school students are considering a four-year college, down significantly from the 72 percent considering college previously.
The significant reduction in immigration, as a result of political intransigence regarding federal immigration policy, is projected to be down 2.5 million through this decade. This could, in combination with declining birth rates during the COVID-19 pandemic, result in a total US population of only around 375 million by 2050, instead of the previously projected 400 million, according to the US Census Bureau. The net result could be significantly fewer high school graduates enrolling in college over the next couple of decades. The demographic challenges portend significant financial headwinds for colleges and universities. In addition, because of the exceptionally strong economy today, enrollments continue to decline significantly, particularly at community colleges.
In the post-pandemic context with no additional “free” money from the federal government, combined with budget cuts at the state level, donor fatigue, and the uncertainty of population demographics, colleges and universities can and must plan and act proactively to address enrollment declines. It takes comprehensive strategic and tactical approaches to address student recruitment and retention, innovative educational programming to promote student success and closure of equity gaps, and restructuring of institutional mission and programs.
These headwinds will require novel approaches to recruit and retain traditional students. The competition for recruiting students will be intense. Although recent data suggest the significant downturn in enrollment of international students is turning around, competition for international students from other countries, including Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, is another factor that requires creative recruitment solutions.
A potential pool of students could be the huge non-traditional student population, including the nearly three million veterans of recent conflicts, the approximately 40 million individuals who did not complete college for various reasons, and the millions representing the Great Resignation. These non-traditional, often part time, students who want/need to update their credentials, i.e., upskilling and reskilling, are an outstanding pool for colleges and universities to consider and recruit from. In addition to the traditional model of recruiting students from high schools, new recruitment approaches are needed to reach the millions of place-bound, non-traditional students. This effort part could include effective outreach via social media and personal contacts through alumni and other supporters who come from similar communities. This may require changes to admissions standards, including elimination of application fees, standardized tests, and other such constraints facing non-traditional students.
Because of the demographic challenges noted above, institutions are “fishing” for students from the same, small, and diminishing pool. Competition for students will continue to be intense. Similarly, absent a change in visa rules, which colleges and universities can work collectively to make happen at the federal level, international students will not be an offsetting source of enrollments, as had been the case during past economic downturns. Even if American visa rules are changed, competition for international students from other countries is another factor that requires creative recruitment solutions.
Colleges will need to compete as well against other for-profit and non-profit institutions and against corporate educational efforts, such as that of Google, for example. The approaches could include creation of flexible pathways, mergers, institutional partnerships and consortia, public-private partnerships, construction and deployment of alternative credentialing, micro- and stacked-credentialing, badges, competency-based education, certificates, and non-traditional majors and degree offerings.
These strategies must be comprehensive, adaptable, data- and evidence-informed, and include a portfolio of approaches focused on the fundamentals, such as personalized education and services, intensive mentoring, intrusive advising and academic coaching, and use of experiential learning and other high impact practices. Student educational offerings should include a combination of technical, cognitive skills and transferrable non-cognitive, core competencies, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. In addition, students will need help with financial aid and just-in-time grants, social networks, food and nutritional security, housing, child- and health-care support, and mental health counseling.
The stable, quiet world of accreditation is similarly now under pressure from various external forces. For decades, nationally recognized accreditors were determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of post-secondary education. With escalation of (hyper)partisan politics in America, the value of accreditation has been questioned, caught up in the calls against efforts related to diversity, equity, and inclusion and the “culture” wars. Yet others have called for accreditors to focus on alternative issues, including post-graduation outcomes. Some have argued that accreditors would be better equipped to perform their expected role of quality improvement if they were not “gatekeepers” for federal student aid. In recent weeks we have even seen a proposal to create a new accrediting body that will evaluate colleges and universities on their efforts to promote economic mobility gains for their students.
In the last few years, there have been calls for institutions of higher education and accreditors to be held accountable, i.e., to deliver on their obligation to accept responsibility and account for their actions. Institutional and accreditor accountability are both derived from the need to focus on student outcomes. The competition against traditional educational institutions and calls for drastically changing or eliminating accreditation and to build new accreditation models are, in part, related to the notion that accreditors do not hold institutions accountable regarding student outcomes. Whether this latter is based on reality is not the question, as much as the fact that both higher education and accreditation are caught up in the maelstrom of the intense political divide in America.
Concurrently, congress and the administration have been calling for greater accountability. In a recent report, a subcommittee of the National Advisory Council on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) stated that accrediting agencies have made “their standards so flexible that each institution can create and apply any of a range of its own student achievement measures, setting its own benchmark for success, and if the peer review team sees a weakness, produce an improvement plan that may or may not lead to improvement.” The subcommittee concluded that accreditors are contributing to the lack of or diminished institutional accountability. This is an indictment and should be a wakeup call to accreditors.
In its reinvigorated approach to accreditation, NWCCU does not focus on inputs, as has been claimed by some. Rather, through its Standards for Accreditation, Eligibility Requirements, Policies, and Procedures, NWCCU applies data-informed approaches to promote equitable student outcomes.
NWCCU’s Standard on student achievement, particularly 1.D.2 and 1.D.3, specify that the member institution’s disaggregated indicators of success should be benchmarked against indicators for peer institutions and should be used for continuous self-improvement. However, we have not held our institutions accountable per se on these Standards. Because of questions that came up during our August 2, 2023 NACIQI appearance and in the NACIQI subcommittee’s report related to accountability, we are creating the framework and process to hold our institutions accountable. The approach will include requiring our institutions to declare their goals related to student achievement measures, such as retention rates, graduation/completion rates, time to completion, postgraduation outcomes, and cohort default rates, in comparison with their peers, and to use the data for continuous self-improvement. As part of the peer evaluative process, comparative data will be assessed to ensure institutions are achieving their goals; if not, there will be a path to help them become compliant within a defined period. Over the next few months additional details of this plan will come into focus, as we hope to deploy it in September 2024.
In conjunction with the deployment of the 2020 Standards for Accreditation, NWWCU has created vigorous educational programming, initiated data dashboards as decision support tools for peer evaluators and commissioners, and is promoting innovations – including, for example, three-year degrees and concurrent enrollment of high school students – at member institutions via a revamped Substantive Change process. These efforts to streamline the Standards, Eligibility Requirements, Policies, and Procedures have contributed to increased accountability, effectiveness, and efficiency, while mitigating the net cost of accreditation.
Academic Freedom and Free Speech
The hallmark of American higher education is the enshrinement and unwavering support of academic freedom and free expression. In the last few years, however, some organizations and public officials in some states and at the federal level have embarked on a coordinated campaign to censor free expression on our college campuses. Efforts to push back against such educational censorship laws have resulted in legislative calls and actions to restrict or even eliminate funding. Such censorship has the potential to impact the quality and rigor of classroom teaching, by contributing to the elimination or restriction of discussion of critical historical facts, incorporation of false narratives, and weakened scientific rigor. These efforts may serve to negatively impact the development of critical thinking skills and post-graduation success of students.
Individually withstanding the concerted efforts to censor free expression and infringe on academic freedom is difficult. Instead, what works is a coordinated, collaborative, and planned effort across higher education, as we see being undertaken by efforts such as, for example, Champions of Higher Education, that is supported by PEN America. More importantly, academic leaders need to be unwavering and unstinting in their efforts to support and promote free expression and academic freedom on their campuses. A good example of such efforts is the report on the freedom of expression by the University of Chicago. The bottom line is we must deliver on the promise of education; yet, shamefully, far too many students fail to achieve their higher education goals and aspirations, saddled with debt, and struggle to make ends meet.
Innovations in higher education require being outcomes driven, using student achievement measures, i.e., focused on student success and closing equity gaps. For NWCCU, this means that indicators of student achievement measures are data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, age, gender, socioeconomic status, first generation college student, Pell eligibility, and other institutionally relevant and meaningful categories that may help promote student achievement and close barriers to academic excellence.
Data from multiple colleges and universities suggest that innovative and intentional strategies that address barriers to academic excellence in education result in significantly better overall outcomes in student success and help to close equity gaps. These outcomes also create a compelling value proposition to the students, parents, alumni, the public, and other key stakeholders.
Because the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will be long lasting, higher education will need to reengineer itself, while retaining its fundamental purpose, i.e., student outcomes. The reengineering will require reanalysis of mission such that it is aligned with new business models, innovation, and risk-taking without jeopardizing core operations, and cogent communications strategy. It will require adaptability, patience, and perseverance.
Successful strategies require a scan of the ecosystem in which the institution operates, considering the internal and external milieu. It may include necessary market analyses, budget reductions, consolidation of educational programs resulting in a smaller footprint, partnerships with other educational institutions and/or private sector and non-profit program managers, and outsourcing of business and other services, to name a few approaches. However, all of these approaches must be undertaken with the future in mind, i.e., be flexible and allow for future growth, as budget pressures change and enrollments fluctuate.
It will also require a renewed commitment by higher education to enhance the cognitive and non-cognitive skills of students through learner-centered, experiential and other high impact opportunities. It may also include a combination of on-campus, online, or blended/hybrid, and technology driven education and learning models to create anytime, anywhere learning offered in an open-campus environment. All of these strategies, however, require continued emphasis on being student-centered, maintaining student-ready campuses, and offering courses and programs tailored to the needs of students to help them meet their aspirational goals. It will take a singular focus on inculcating core competencies, i.e., a combination of technical, cognitive skills, along with the non-cognitive, essential skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork, and other such skills, and, most importantly, the ability to question assumptions. Finally, students need the sense of belonging and community, which are factors that enhance retention and outcomes, both in on-campus and online contexts.
Innovative and intentional strategies to promote success must be student-centered, comprehensive, adaptable, data- and evidence-informed, and include a portfolio of approaches requiring the collaborative commitment and engagement of every member and every component of the institution to identify and solve the challenges facing institutions and accreditation.
With the help of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, NWCCU has created its internal data and analytical systems infrastructure and has supported member institution efforts to help inventory and improve their systems to develop and deploy data-informed approaches to promote student outcomes. NWCCU is endeavoring also to help institutions identify benchmark quantitative and qualitative student achievement indicators in comparison with peer institutions at the regional and national levels. This approach must be used for institutional continuous improvement to promote student success. A number of institutions have capitalized on disaggregated evidence- and data-informed approaches and predictive analytics to significantly enhance graduation rates and close equity gaps. Combined with intrusive advising, evidence, data, and analytics are powerful tools. Additionally, experiences at some institutions have shown that empowering faculty, staff, students, and other relevant individuals to own and be trained to use data, thus, democratizing data, are resulting in significant gains in promoting student success and closing equity gaps. Effective strategies include use of data-informed predictive analytics and other digital tools to promote community and group interactions that ensures student learning.
There is no doubt that higher education and accreditation are facing unprecedented challenges. As described above, however, these challenges are not intractable – both at the institutional level and at the accreditor level – and should instead be viewed as opportunities. Institutions and accreditors will need to invest significant intellectual, financial, human, and infrastructural resources to manage the direct and indirect impacts of these challenges, which will offer significant opportunities to reimagine and reengineer these endeavors so as to focus on the raison d’etre of higher education: student success.
Paraphrasing the inimitable words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the future depends on what we do today.”
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