Originally published April 2, 2003 [v11 i14] and April 9, 2003 [v11 i15], this two-part article details the ongoing AU project of preparing for accreditation in the United States. The work continues on a comprehensive document to be presented to the accreditation board in 2004:
Spearheading AU’s Middle States accreditation efforts are
Nancy Parker (liaison officer), Sandy Sales (committee recording secretary), and Ken Collier (committee chair).
Athabasca University is proceeding with its efforts to achieve full accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, an accomplishment that will help facilitate AU’s expansion into the US market. Ken Collier, chair of the steering committee, provides an update.
Athabasca University recently achieved “candidate” status with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education on the path toward accreditation in the USA. A representative committee and 11 task forces are working toward that goal. AU staff work on organizing the needed documents and resources. “But why are we doing this?” some have asked.
In 1999, the Strategic University Plan update process committed AU to enter the US higher education market. Research and consultation led to the conclusion that US accreditation would be needed. American and visiting students to the USA are reluctant to enroll at unaccredited institutions. Credit transfer and general academic recognition hinge around accreditation.
Diploma mills and fly-by-night operators cloud the American education climate. Potential students are suspicious of universities with whom they are not familiar. Though the Canadian scene is less concerned with accreditation, an additional benefit of US accreditation will be that AU will also be better recognized in Canada and internationally, where concerns about diploma mills may be less prominent than in the US, but nevertheless a reality.
Accreditation goes a long way toward easing these fears. Dr. John Bear, who visited AU a few years ago (and whose best-selling Bear’s Guides to non-traditional degrees, degrees by mail and modem, etc. mention AU favourably) makes the case for accreditation at: http://www.degree.net/guides/accreditation_guide.html
Though there is no formal accrediting body in Canada, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC, publisher of University Affairs) is exploring a full accreditation role, though its realization is both uncertain and many years off. AU, as a full AUCC member, could bring both experience and DE distinctiveness to this function, should it occur.
Why Middle States?
The AU Executive group and the International Projects office explored US accreditors. Six American regional bodies do this work. They have similar, yet slightly varying, missions and criteria. Some have more experience with distance education and open learning than others. At the time of application, only two regional accreditation bodies accepted applications from institutions that were not incorporated in the US, and as AU wants to serve this market without creating a new infrastructure (as did the USOU) this reduced the alternatives significantly.
Middle States was chosen because it showed some understanding and active interest in Athabasca University’s approach – both to distance education and to the accreditation process.
The Accreditation Process
Much can be learned about a university’s own functioning through accreditation. This is not just an act of supplication to a distant – foreign – body. If that was all the accreditation bid amounted to, neither AU nor Middle States would be interested.
Rather, AU gets to see itself through somewhat dispassionate eyes. It also sees itself through its own utterances – how it states its own mission and goals, how it carries out its educational roles, how it explains itself to others, what practical deed it commits, and ultimately, what the implications of all those activities are.
The accreditation process invites stakeholders to show their relationship to AU. Students, tenured academics, tutors, subject matter experts, administrative and maintenance staff and interested observers get to measure AU against recognized criteria. Middle States gets more experience with a distance education university. Middle States already knows other institutions with considerable DE approaches. The Middle States web site directory (http://www.msache.org/direc.html) lists the variety of institutions they accredit.
They also have an interests in AU as a Canadian university to be accredited in the USA (they already have a few) and as a solely DE provider. AU’s unique features, while eminently accreditable, also provide input to their processes that will surely meet many more DE institutions in the future. AU gains membership in this accrediting body and can influence its policies and directions through active engagement with other US and global higher education organizations.
The accreditation theme does not stop with the US. AU already has projects and considerable experience in overseas education projects. Japan and China are two recent examples of countries where AU has or had contracts. The very existence of distance education, electronic communications and the capacities of the web allow the educational enterprise to leap over national boundaries. It was just a matter of time until education quality, standards, security and trustworthiness, administrative and practice questions moved beyond regional or national regulatory bodies.
Nonetheless, existing accreditors will have large influence on global education and DE rules, as well as the mechanisms to enforce them.
AU is already in the global arena, alongside very large players from Europe, the US and Australia. Southeast Asian DE bodies are also growing fast because their national populations’ educational needs cannot be met by either current or forecasted higher education building in the foreseeable future. Offshore (including Canadian) DE capacity may very well play a big role in meeting this pressure.
Recent global education conferences took up this theme. One conference in particular, the OECD/US Forum on Trade in Educational Services (1), included key sessions on quality and standards, accreditation, credit transfers and other agenda items of importance to the AU internationalization projects (2).
Athabasca University Middle States Accreditation Initiative situates us firmly in the terrain of higher education and distance education on a global plane. The quickly unfolding context within which AU operates is known from the literature and sites mentioned above. The Middle States Accreditation Initiative is but a first step in becoming a recognized part of that context.
(1) Duepree, John L., Maisia E. Johnson and Marjorie Peace Lenn (Eds.) (2002). OECD/US Forum on Trade In Educational Services: Conference Proceedings, Washington: The Center for Quality Assurance in International Education.
(2) See, from another conference, Dirk Van Damme (http://www.unesco.org/education/studyingabroad/highlights/global_forum/presentations/keynote_eng.doc).