Postsecondary Commission Propels Accreditation Revolution with Student Outcomes and Economic Mobility FocusBy Joy Liwanag
In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, a new player is emerging to challenge traditional accreditation models.
The Postsecondary Commission (PSC), a nonprofit organization backed by philanthropy, is pioneering a unique approach to accrediting U.S. colleges and universities. Unlike traditional accrediting bodies that emphasize metrics related to academics and fiscal health, the PSC places a strong focus on student outcomes, including earnings and economic mobility. However, the road to recognition is long and arduous, with the PSC facing skepticism from critics and questions about its proposed accreditation standards.
A New Model for Accreditation
Founded by Stig Leschly, a former charter school executive and Harvard Business School lecturer, the PSC aims to tap into the largely untapped need for accreditation models centered around student motivations, often driven by earnings. The organization is building its accreditation standards around measuring both "absolute earnings" and "value-added" earnings. Absolute earnings are determined by the median wage for graduates being 150 percent above the poverty line for two of the three years after completing their degrees. On the value-added side, institutions must generate wage gains for both graduating and non-graduating students that exceed the costs charged by the institutions.
This outcomes-focused model is a departure from the traditional emphasis on inputs, bureaucracy, and outdated requirements seen in conventional accreditation processes. Leschly highlighted the PSC's commitment to economic returns, transparency, accountability, and innovation in a congressional hearing on education reform.
Pilot Program and Federal Recognition
To test its proposed accreditation model, the PSC has initiated a pilot program at Texas State Technical College. This program allows the organization to navigate regulatory requirements and seek federal recognition. The journey toward becoming a recognized accrediting body involves a comprehensive application to the U.S. Department of Education, a lengthy review process, and various other regulatory steps. If successful, the PSC will enter an educational landscape where institutions have newfound freedom to choose accreditors beyond their historic regions.
Supporters and Detractors
While the PSC boasts a board with well-known names, including Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, and Paul LeBlanc, the outgoing president of Southern New Hampshire University, it is not without its critics. Supporters commend the focus on outcomes, transparency, and innovation. Mitchell sees the potential for innovative methods to boost student success, while LeBlanc anticipates encouraging more innovation in educational models.
On the flip side, critics raise concerns about the lack of specificity and rigor in the PSC's proposed accreditation standards. Think tanks such as Third Way and New America question whether the metrics, particularly earnings gains, are gameable and might incentivize bad actors. The PSC's ability to accurately measure postgraduate earnings, collect necessary longitudinal data, and review institutional diversity and equity efforts has also come under scrutiny.
Addressing Concerns and Moving Forward
Responding to critiques, the PSC updated its standards in November, providing more specificity in various areas. Despite concerns about the organization's timing, especially in light of legislative changes in Florida and North Carolina requiring state institutions to change accreditors regularly, Leschly denies any political motivations. He asserts that the PSC aims to remain neutral on contentious issues and will focus primarily on outcomes, taking a light-touch approach.
As the Postsecondary Commission charts its course through the complex accreditation landscape, the higher education community watches with a mix of curiosity and skepticism. The emphasis on student outcomes, economic returns, and transparency sets the PSC apart from traditional accrediting bodies. Whether it can address the concerns raised by critics and gain federal recognition remains to be seen. In a sector marked by resistance to change, the Postsecondary Commission is challenging the status quo, betting on a model that prioritizes student success and economic opportunity.