Guest Opinion: Students as voice on accreditation

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Guest Opinion: Students as voice on accreditation

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By Rachel Zuckerman

Last week, for the first time ever, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation annual conference in Washington, D.C., featured a panel on accreditation from the perspective of students.
In my role as University of Iowa student-body president, I joined the student-government presidents from Carnegie Mellon University and University of Houston to offer our thoughts on the topic to a room of approximately 300 accreditation experts.
Council President Judith Eaton introduced our panel by saying she was “excited but the slightly embarrassed” that this was the first time the conference included students. Others echoed her enthusiasm.

Others echoed her enthusiasm.

“I was delighted that [the council] saw the need and for the first time ever had a panel of student leaders,” said former Deputy Under Secretary of Education Jamienne Studley, who moderated the student-leader panel. “The thoughtfulness and subtle analysis by the student-government presidents really helped reinforce the message about the importance of student participation.”

Accreditation is a review process conducted by external bodies that aims to hold higher-education institutions accountable for quality assurance and improvement. As of November 2015, the accreditation council represented more than 3,000 American colleges and universities. Experts say accreditation is important for many reasons but especially because institutions must be accredited to be eligible for federal and state funds.

While student engagement in the accreditation process varies from institution to institution, students have historically played a limited role, she said, noting that there are only two consistent ways that student input is solicited during the accreditation process.

First, accreditors are required to consider the formal complaints that students have submitted against the institution during a review. Second, all institutions must allow the external accreditation review team to meet with students for an open, uncensored discussion about their student experience.

Studley, however, believes that students should be more engaged with the process of identifying institutional values, shaping university priorities, determining how resources are allocated, and developing accreditation standards. She emphasized that people who are new to the accreditation process can offer new perspectives and fresh ideas.

Shane Smith, the student-government president at the University of Houston, agrees. He is involved with his school’s re-accreditation process through the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

“Any discussion on student outcomes and quality of education for students has to include a student voice,” he said.

Unfortunately, he said, many students on his campus are unaware of what accreditation is and why it matters.

“Most students don’t know it exists. Accreditation is something that is very behind-the-scenes,” Smith said. “It’s very important, but I think if you polled students, you’d just find that nobody knew how it’s done, how often it’s done, what goes into it, how it affects them, how it affects the value of their degree.”

Others say students need to be more involved in the quality-assurance process because the demographics of higher education are rapidly changing. I met 25-year-old Simon Boehme, the director of student engagement at the Quality Assurance Commons, at the conference.

“The accreditation community may be strengthened by being more inclusive, particularly student voices … Look around, we’re the only young people here,” he said to me. “The demographics of accreditation do not match the demographics of the average student body.”

Boehme, who calls himself a “student advocate in higher education and accreditation,” believes that students need a more institutionalized role in the accreditation process. He said there is already a rule that for every seven members of an accrediting agency, there must be a member of the public, and he thinks there should also be a required student representative. Smith and Boehme both believe that accreditation priorities would change if students were more involved.

“Imagine if students were engaged in the conversations and could say, ‘Well, did you think about sexual assault, did you think about diversity in the classroom, did you think about a woman of color’s perspective?’’ Boehme said.

This conversation is relevant to our campus community at the University of Iowa. I talked to Lon Moeller, the associate provost for undergraduate education, who serves as the accreditation liaison officer between the UI and its accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission. He thinks about the UI’s next on-site accreditation visit, which is scheduled for March 25-26, 2019. During the visit, the external review team will analyze everything from student services to online programs to general education courses.

Moeller said administrators make many of the decisions about accreditation criteria, and he agrees that students should have more of a say. He plans to approach a group of students in six to eight months to begin gathering their perspectives on our accreditation review.

“As consumers of the product, you have a better sense of what’s going on on the frontlines,” he said. “Ultimately, we need your voice.”

Rachel Zuckerman serves as the UI Student Government president and
therefore often works with Associate Provost Lon Moeller on student