Raising the Bar: Leveraging Accreditation and Its Influence on Transfer and Credit Mobility

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The nation cannot achieve equity in student outcomes without intentionally addressing how current credit mobility and transfer policies and practices are denying students recognition of and credit for high-quality learning. Accreditation is a key pillar of the postsecondary system, serving as one of the most important arbiters of quality as well as a gatekeeper for institutions to access the billions of dollars appropriated for federal student aid. Yet accreditation has rarely been elevated as part of the solution for improving equity in transfer and credit mobility.

To explore the opportunities and limits of accreditation’s role in connecting the dots between quality, equity, and outcomes in transfer and credit mobility, the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board has worked in partnership over the past year with the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC), Sova, and four WSCUC accredited institutions (one private and three public institutions), with funding from the ECMC Foundation. Interviews with a broader group of accreditors and a literature review supplemented our engagement with WSCUC and its members. Our research and engagement started with a focus on historically-regional institutional accreditors (hereafter “accreditors”). We see this as a first step, and look forward to additional work that brings in other institutional, specialty and professional accreditors.

As two of our Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board members, Shirleatha Lee and Maria Hesse, explained in a July 2022 Beyond Transfer blog for Inside Higher Ed, there is great power in engaging accreditors for (at least) the following reasons: accreditation influences institutional behavior and reaches community colleges and universities at scale; accreditation offers a platform for long-term change that hits at the heart of high-quality teaching and learning; and higher education practitioners/peers are responsible for accreditation, so their engagement can help to promote deep and lasting change.

That is why we now call upon accreditors to step up their game and become part of the solution. Accrediting agencies, which have shown in the past that they can foster change, can help to shift the conversation about equity in transfer and credit mobility. At the moment, however, there is great room for improvement. Key findings from our research and engagement include:

  • Mentions of “transfer” in accreditation policies and standards are limited. Still harder to find is language on topics such as credit mobility, applicability of credit, or portability of learning. The absence of robust policies, standards, and site visit guidance that directly support students who transfer, or critical related topics such as credit mobility, credit portability, and applicability of credit to major, speaks loudly.
  • Accreditors are a group of extremely diverse organizations. Some came to interviews eager to share how they work in service to equity and to invite additional collaboration. For example, the partnership with Sova and the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board that undergirds this effort was WSCUC’s idea. Other accreditors came to the interviews wary, concerned that this research would create new challenges for them. Still others declined to be interviewed or did not respond to repeated outreach attempts. These variations raise serious questions about how differing approaches play out across agencies and/or programs, how accreditors view their responsibilities, and what that means for equity in student outcomes.
  • Accreditation does not currently: adequately acknowledge that most students would benefit from improved transfer and credit mobility; ask mission-related questions that reflect the importance of transfer and credit mobility; demand attention to equity through transparency and rigorous analysis of disaggregated outcomes for students who transfer and are mobile; or provide strong guidance to institutions in areas such as credit evaluation that have serious consequences for students who transfer. 
  • There is a commonly expressed–and believed–sentiment that certain changes cannot be pursued because of accreditation. However, this is rarely true. As one stakeholder noted, “‘The accreditor won’t let me do it’ is absolutely false.” The bottom line is: institutions themselves set the policies related to how credit decisions are made and how credits are counted toward completion of prerequisites and majors. The question for accreditors is, how—if at all—do you seek to understand how institutions follow their own policies, whether their institutional policies are evidence-based, and whether those policies create roadblocks and inequities in the system?  Are you asking hard questions, looking at disaggregated data and upholding your responsibility to guide institutions toward equity in student outcomes?

Given these findings, we call on accreditors (as noted, particularly historically-regional institutional accreditors) and their most important constituents—the colleges and universities themselves—to move forward together in a new way (see Graphic 1):

  • Connect transfer and credit mobility to institutional mission and make it a key part of how institutions—particularly those serving significant proportions of students who are mobile—demonstrate quality and approach continuous improvement. As President Jamienne Studley of WSCUC observed:

Transfer and credit mobility….get to the heart of an institution’s achievement of its goals for equity, completion, and student success. These subjects can be excellent ways to deepen and refresh the institution’s inquiry into its successes and areas for improvement.

  • Ask hard questions and deepen inquiry around equitable outcomes. Go far deeper than looking at completion rates for students who transfer. Seek to understand how long credit evaluation takes, how many credits do not apply to program completion, and whether students who transfer have fair and equal access to key student supports such as financial aid, advising, housing and enriching learning experiences (see a sample Inquiry Guide here).
  • Stop letting “the accreditor won’t let me do it” halt change in its tracks. Push back; ask to see the policy; reach out to the accreditors themselves for clarification. “The accreditor won’t let me (or made me)” is commonly heard, but rarely true.
  • Investigate whether current approaches to accreditation standards, which may impact outcomes for students who transfer, are rooted in evidence. Have accreditors surveyed their members to ask, do current policies—such as limits on acceptance of prior learning—actually serve as markers of quality?  Do they create unnecessary barriers to equity?  Are current policies based in evidence about student outcomes, or are they based in assumptions about the student experience?    
  • Identify aspects of transfer and credit mobility that have serious consequences for how institutions serve students and come together to develop and/or endorse new principles that can guide institutional action.

Engaging accreditors is just one of many strategies needed. The Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board is, for example, simultaneously engaged in additional work on student affordability and the financial disincentives facing institutions in the context of transfer and credit mobility. We also look forward to the opportunity to continue to collaborate with a critical mass of accreditors to elevate a focus on equitable transfer and credit mobility, including other institutional, specialty and professional accreditors. We hope and expect that as we continue these efforts, more accreditors will come to the table and seek to maximize their influence in service to equity as well.

Please see the Beyond Transfer Policy Advisory Board’s full white paper on this topic here.

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