President’s Monthly Message
This brief essay is another in a monthly series of conversation-starters about key aspects of our work as an accrediting agency. It will be updated at the beginning of each month, covering such topics as the role of sanctions, the work of a Commissioner, and our relationship with the US Department of Education. We will feature new initiatives and address important challenges that we face. Each month’s entry will then be archived for future reference. My goal is to enrich your understanding of this important aspect of higher education in our region. I hope you will find reasons to return regularly to this page. And I welcome your feedback.
Richard Winn, Ed.D.
By the Numbers
In the work of accreditation, numbers really do matter.
For example, we strive for consistency in making decisions about the accredited status of member institutions. These are highly consequential decisions and we want to avoid any sense that a Commission’s action has been arbitrary, impulsive, or biased for or against any institution. Wherever appropriate, we inform our decisions by relying on carefully selected metrics – objective, comparable numbers that indicate an institution’s levels and trends in key performance areas.
An equally important use of numbers, primarily for use by the institutions themselves, was foreseen in the work of the quality guru, Edwards Deming, who championed the notion that, if something can’t be measured, it can’t be improved. The college’s Institutional Research (IR) department is busy cranking out data on institutional trends, demographic performance gaps, sector comparisons, resource allocations, student achievement, fiscal standing, stakeholder feedback, and dozens of other metrics. Decision-makers at every level – especially governing boards – use these to ensure the achievement of the college’s mission and to foster improved effectiveness in every measurable area.
I fully endorse the clear and growing national call for higher education to rely more on the wise use of data. And this applies to accreditors with specific potency. I would, however, offer some caveats about the use of data in the accreditation process.
The illusion of consistency. While “consistency in decision-making” is a worthy goal, it often begins with the assumption that institutions are identical. I hear it argued that institutions performing at the same levels should receive the same accreditation decisions. This assumes that all institutions are identical in mission, circumstance, context, resources, history, and student demographics, and thus can be compared directly – apples-to-apples – with each other. This simply isn’t the case. Accreditors are constantly reminded of the distinctiveness of each member. The peer review process aims to appreciate the multiple defining characteristics of each institution and the complexity of its own journey toward excellence. This is why every comprehensive review is grounded in the mission and context of the individual college.
Begin, not end, with numbers. A college’s IR professionals know that “weighing the pig doesn’t fatten the pig.” Gathering the numbers doesn’t, itself, produce improvements. Institutions still need to wrestle with the meaning of the numbers, then stage and monitor the resulting action plans. It would be risky if the numbers an institution is using to improve its performance are used by the accreditor as the primary basis for accreditation decisions. While accreditors require many of those numbers to be reported to the agency as part of its annual monitoring and comprehensive reviews – like a doctor making sure patients pays attention to their blood chemistry as part of a medical check-up – the locus of accountability for using those numbers must remain with the institution. For accreditors to use these data as the primary basis for making accreditation decisions risks shifting the locus of accountability for improvement to the agency. This is not how accreditors work.
Holistic, professional judgments. Accreditation decisions are not made by a computer or determined by an adding machine. They are made by humans who exhibit the remarkable capacity to make holistic judgements. Numbers inform but do not determine those judgments. Professional educators, bringing the seasoned perspectives gained by working within the sector, analyze the meaning of multiple numeric indicators, combined with narrative evidence, to draw summative conclusions. The process is more like a butter knife than a scalpel, which is sometimes troubling to those who long for the certainty of mathematical precision. While ACCJC has placed more than a few of its members on some form of sanction over the past decade, few if any of those sanctions were based just on numbers; mostly they were based on concerns about institutional practices.
The “bright lines” mythology. There are influential voices in the national conversation about accreditation who urge the notion referred to as “bright line” decisions. Essentially, if an institution’s performance drops below a pre-set, universally applied number (a “bright line”) on one or a few data points, the institution should be sanctioned or have its accreditation withdrawn. There are even those who urge that accreditors who don’t impose these bright lines should have their federal recognition withdrawn. Together with serious concerns about the philosophy of accreditation, the bright line argument requires ignoring the three caveats described above.
ACCJC seeks to incorporate a wise use of numbers into its accreditation practices. This is best illustrated by what we call Institution-Set Standards (ISS). This practice is summarized in these simple steps: (A) The institution understands itself in all its uniqueness and selects appropriate performance indicators in keeping with its mission. (B) It obtains and evaluates its performance as portrayed by these metrics and establishes base line numbers. (C) It sets aspirational performance goals – expressed both in numbers and in plans to move those numbers. (D) It monitors its progress toward those goals by regularly watching the numbers. (E) It owns the responsibility to adjust its plans based on trends and gaps in the numbers. ACCJC requires an ISS report from the institution on both the process and the numeric trends, not as the basis for making an accreditation decision, but for ensuring that the institution clearly owns this process for itself.
Numbers are like a mirror by which an institution reflects on its performance. They are like a lens by which peer reviewers bring an institution into sharper focus. But numbers are not the institution itself.
|Month & Year||Title||Download|
|September 2019||Are Accreditors Federal Agents?||Download PDF|
|August 2019||Are Accreditors Chained to the Old Model?||Download PDF|
|July 2019||What Students Need to Know about Accreditation||Download PDF|
|June 2019||Why “Dodging That Bullet” Matters||Download PDF|
|May 2019||“Learning Community” – It’s a Thing||Download PDF|
|April 2019||Descriptive or Prescriptive||Download PDF|
|March 2019||Accreditation’s Critics: Taking Them Seriously||Download PDF|
|February 2019||Do Accreditors Really Have Standards||Download PDF|
|January 2019||Take the Fear Out of the System||Download PDF|
|December 2018||Is It Bright Lines or Processes?||Download PDF|
|November 2018||Peer Review: A Key to American Educational Excellence||Download PDF|
|October 2018||Why I Love Community Colleges||Download PDF|
|September 2018||What's the Alternative to Regional Accreditation||Download PDF|
|August 2018||To Sanction or Not to Sanction: That is the Question||Download PDF|
|June 2018||The Cost of Accreditation: Calculating the ROI||Download PDF|
|May 2018||All This Work with No Pay: Why Be a Commissioner?||Download PDF|
|April 2018||Compliance and Improvement: ACCJC's Dual Mission||Download PDF|
|March 2018||One Region, Two Systems: Why?||Download PDF|