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How Has Online Learning Affected College Accreditation?

Despite an increase in online learning since the pandemic, not much has changed in terms of how colleges and universities are accredited, but officials at accreditation agencies are interested in tracking outcomes.

Wooden block letters spelling out the word “accreditation.”
With universities adopting a plethora of new virtual learning platforms and expanding their online course catalogs to meet demand for remote learning options, it’s hard to disagree that COVID-19 helped to radically change how learning takes place at institutions across the U.S. But while the increase in remote and online programming has catalyzed the digitization of higher education, little has changed in the way of how the country’s regional accreditation bodies evaluate institutions and their programs, which accreditation body leaders say are mostly measured in terms of their results over time.

According to Jamienne Studley, president of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), the growth of virtual learning during COVID-19 has helped put discussions about student performance firmly in the spotlight as educators work to maintain student engagement and provide adequate academic supports remotely. When it comes to evaluating online programs, she said organizations like hers tend to measure student learning outcomes such as postgraduate success and job placement, among other metrics found on the WSCUC’s online Key Indicators Dashboard, to “put student performance in context across time and institutions.”
“It’s essential to prepare institutions and accrediting reviewers to use that information thoughtfully, consistently, and in a nuanced way, to understand whether students are succeeding and why, to appreciate differences among student populations and delivery models, and especially how to use that information to improve results,” she said in an email to Government Technology.

Studley said the shift to full online learning across course subjects during COVID-19 compelled education leaders and institutions to take a closer, more in-depth look at the varying needs of students, particularly first-generation students who tend to need instructional guidance that’s often more readily available in traditional, in-person courses. Together with the WASC Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the two accreditation bodies have accredited a total of 340 institutions, most of which have followed suit with other colleges and universities expanding online programming during COVID-19.

“One specific challenge that online education has brought to the forefront is assuring that student services and supports are tailored to different programs, students’ needs and education delivery models. Online education has compelled colleges and universities to ask [more about] how to provide effective advising, information resources, career development, co-curricular opportunities, health and other services to their students. That, in turn, has prepared them to better understand the needs and options for supporting all students,” she told Government Technology. “Many students and educators take the view that online education is simply one method of delivery that can be judged by the same standards of quality and results that accreditors apply to higher education generally ... As with current debates about remote and in-person office work, the challenge lies in assuring that we understand what we mean by success, productivity and results, and think creatively about how to assure quality for students in every kind of learning setting.”

In a similar vein, Janea Johnson, a public relations and data specialist for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), said very little, if anything, has fundamentally changed in the way that SACSCOC accredits schools as they add to their online course catalogs. While some evaluations for institutional accreditation took place remotely in the early days of the pandemic in 2020, she said all of the 810 institutions accredited by the organization are evaluated through the same standards measuring student outcomes, institutional planning and whether or not instructional strategies are evidence-based.

“We’ve been accrediting institutions who offer online education far before COVID, and we use the same process to determine if institutions are prepared for online instruction,” she said. “We don’t make a distinction between in-person and online [learning] for our member institutions, and our institutions are held accountable for 88 standards, regardless of their course delivery method ... There’s not an alternate pathway.”

Sonny Ramaswamy, president of Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, said a major part of evaluating the effectiveness of online programming in the institutional accreditation process is examining how instructors themselves are trained. With the adoption of digital learning tools changing the nature of instruction, he said, ed-tech professional development is a key factor in how well schools can administer online courses.
“We have to make sure that the online program is vetted properly in the sense that they’ve got the appropriate resources and the faculty members and credentials to be able to,” he said, noting that fully online schools such as Western Governors University are among the 162 institutions accredited by the organization.

“When we do the accreditation and visits to institutions, we look at various types of courses and degree programs that these institutions are offering, whether online or on campus, and look at those in detail as well. We also require institutions’ annual reports, where they provide us information about online or on-campus courses and degree programs,” he said. “They disaggregate the data for us, in terms of enrollment and in terms of graduation, completion, retention and all these things, as well.”

Despite some concerns about the efficacy of remote learning for students that require more in-person academic support and guidance, he’s hopeful that the rise of remote learning will serve to “democratize” higher education in the years to come by meeting students where they are.

“As an accrediting body, our evaluators look at how students do. Did they get the knowledge that the institution promised? Did they get the degree that the institution promised? And then also, we are now starting to track other things such as outcomes beyond college,” he said. “As far as [concerns about] academic dishonesty and academic integrity and all that, you could have it happen in either situation, whether it’s online or in person ... The idea really is to make sure you’re catering to that student’s needs wherever that student is, and I think the digital revolution is really allowing us to be able to do that well.”

Speaking for the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, Executive Director and CEO Leah Matthews said the effectiveness of online programming depends largely on how courses are administered. Like Ramaswamy, she believes ed-tech professional development is a key factor in an online institution’s ability to gain accreditation.

“Many [regional accreditation bodies] have very clear and precise procedures for adding distance education that institutions needed to comply with to move forward, and some are following up on rapid approvals that took place when the pandemic first started. There were some leniencies around approving distance education quickly, with the caveat that there would be rigorous follow-up review on the education quality,” she said, noting that unlike most regional bodies, the DEAC solely evaluates full online academies across all 50 states.

“Education quality standards for distance education measure outcomes in similar ways to [in-person] education delivery, but standards around how faculty are qualified to teach in online learning, how learning management systems deliver curriculum to the online learner and the quality of that curriculum, its accessibility and ability to measure student learning and provide progress reports to the student on their learning outcomes is a really important factor. That’s often done differently than the assessment of curriculum for students in a traditional face-to-face learning environment,” she continued. “I would also say we evaluate supplemental resources differently … How is that integrated into the curriculum? Are the materials at an appropriate level of rigor, and are they relevant?”

Matthews added that while accreditation bodies adhere to U.S. Department of Education guidelines for institutional and programmatic evaluation, the U.S. has a largely decentralized system for accreditation. She added that the effectiveness of online programs can vary widely when comparing first-generation students who need more academic support with advanced students who stand to benefit most from the flexibility of online learning.

“When you’re decentralized, no two institutions or two accreditors operate the same way, and all of that decentralization and diversity can lead to uneven outcomes for students,” she said. “Getting thrown into online learning can be extremely difficult for them … First-time learners tend to have the most challenges with retention, focus and staying with it.

“If we’re going to really expand online learning, especially for these learners, we really need to marshal our resources into support services for them, coaching, mentoring, academic advising, tutoring and building communities of online learners.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.