Public Systems and Accreditation
Many states’ public systems of postsecondary education were facing existential challenges even before the global pandemic. These challenges arose from both external and internal pressures. On the external side, demographics are shifting in most states, with fewer high school graduates; and as colleges and universities lose enrollments, state leaders (legislators, governors, and system heads) are seeking solutions to accommodate the current realities. These realities are quite different from those 20-40 years ago when most systems were formed to ensure affordable educational opportunities for growing numbers of high school graduates. While the goals are the same, many states have more institutions than they need or can afford.
The internal pressures resulting in challenges include the perseverance of policies and practices that were never designed to be cost effective nor to help all students succeed. Except for professional programs, most institutions do not gear their programs towards the employment of their graduates. In part due to rising costs, employment prospects are becoming a public expectation.
Consequently, more and more state leaders are looking at consolidations and collaborations among previously independently accredited colleges and universities. As NCHEMS’ Senior Fellow, Aims McGuiness, put it “Only a few public colleges and universities fit the ‘stand-alone’ institutional model upon which regional accreditation standards are based.” Since about 2/3 of all higher education students attend a public institution that is part of a system, this seems a problem worth solving.
Funded by Lumina Foundation, A Framework for Action, is a tool for public higher education systems and accrediting organizations working together, both on a routine basis and when significant changes are contemplated by either party. The Framework is the product of consultation with executives of public systems and institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations that took place during fall 2020. Twenty-four leaders participated in a series of virtual consultations and meetings that produced the document. The project was led by CHEA, through its President Emeritus Judith Eaton, working with Barbara Brittingham, President Emeritus of the New England Commission of Higher Education, and Sally Johnstone, President of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
Click here to read a copy of A Framework for Action.
As part of this project, it became obvious that many were unaware of the extent of the variations among public higher education systems. Aims McGuiness created State Higher Education Structures and Institutional Accreditation. This review of university and community college systems across the country should be very helpful to the accrediting community as well as policymakers.