Midwest accreditor’s latest move highlights shift in college oversight

by Joseph K. Clark

Dive Brief:

  • The Higher Learning Commission, the nation’s largest historically regional accreditor, plans to test differential accreditation based on institutional sector and mission by selecting research institutions and community colleges.
  • The differential accreditation model lets accreditors adjust their oversight based on an institution’s needs, reflecting a growing emphasis on student outcomes in the accreditation process.
  • HLC is aiming to begin its pilot in the fall of 2022. It is also weighing whether to recruit outside its longtime service area in the wake of new federal rules giving accreditors more flexibility over how they do business.

Dive Insight:

HLC is still working out the details of the pilot. However, enabling students to transfer between its member institutions more easily will be a focus, Barbara Gellman-Danley, the agency’s president, said in an emailed statement. The agency expects to meet with leaders of member schools as part of a preliminary research phase. It already offers accreditation pathways that vary “by the amount of ‘touch'” an institution may need, an HLC spokesperson said in an email. Other historically regional accreditors offer similar options or plans.


For example, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities intends to develop a policy that would entail spending more time with at-risk institutions while using “a lighter touch” with those already performing well on student success and closing equity gaps. Its president, Sonny Ramaswamy, said in an email. And Jamienne Studley, president of WASC Senior College and University Commission, pointed to a streamlined reaffirmation path it offers to some members that can show consistent evidence of healthy finances, student outcomes, and performance.

The accreditation landscape is shifting. New federal regulations went into effect last summer that eliminate the geographic boundaries regional accreditors have historically worked within. Several accreditors say they plan to accredit outside those bounds, and HLC is considering such a move. Although details on HLC’s pilot are scant, Antoinette Flores, acting vice president at the Center for American Progress, said in an email that tailoring the oversight process based on the institutional sector and mission “would be unique” for the accreditor.

The recent rule changes also give accreditors more discretion over program approvals and make it easier for new accreditors to shop. Supporters see the changes as opportunities to foster innovation, while critics warn that they could undermine oversight quality. HLC’s latest move exemplifies how the federal government is “pushing accreditation to think differently and more creatively,” said Kevin Kinser, a higher education professor at Pennsylvania State University.

In early 2015, a legal analysis commissioned by three higher education groups showed differential accreditation aligned with federal law. The U.S. Department of Education, as part of a broad set of accreditation-focused executive actions issued later that year, reminded its staff to “provide further guidance and clarification” to accreditors about using “the flexibility they already have under current law to apply risk-based approaches” in their oversight of colleges. Advocates of this approach have argued that the usual oversight process can be unnecessarily cumbersome for institutions with solid track records.

An accreditor using a different method may not require an institution with a history of having a solid curriculum to provide as much documentation. In contrast, a school with leadership changes or enrollment declines may require a deeper review, said Christopher Burnett, a postdoctoral fellow in education leadership and policy studies at the University of Houston. But the approach can still be gamed, applied unevenly, or used only as a time-saving measure, Burnett noted in an email. “Differential accreditation also runs the risk of creating a two-tiered system,” Burnett said. “Ultimately, it must ensure ongoing excellence and quality for all institutions.”

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