College and University Accreditation: Institutional Mission, Enrollment, and Survival
Burnett, Christopher A.
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Background: In the current higher education landscape, institutional accreditors aim to serve their members, by providing support and encouraging improvement, and serve the public, by ensuring quality and accountability. Despite recurrent concerns over the efficacy and value of accreditation given these sometimes-competing roles, limited research has examined accreditation and its outcomes. Purpose: This three-study project provides additional context to understand accreditation and its relationship with higher education. The first paper looked at the way accreditation treated mission diversity with regard to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The second study examined whether accreditation actions related to student enrollment. The final paper analyzed the relationship between accreditation and institutional merger or closure. Methods: The first project used logistic regression to test whether HBCUs were more frequently sanctioned than other institutions after controlling for several factors. The second study used a panel of data to estimate the relationship between negative accreditation actions and institutional enrollment. The third used survival analysis to identify factors related to institutions either merging or closing. Results: Results of the first paper demonstrated that even when controlling for certain factors, HBCUs had three times higher odds of facing negative or adverse accreditation actions than non-HBCUs (p < .001). Results of the second study showed that enrollment declined for institutions after they were placed on sanction. Specifically, four-year private not-for-profit institutions had a 7.7% decline in FTE enrollment two years after warning (p < .05) and public four- year and two-year institutions had a 4.9% and an 8.1% relative decline in FTE two years after probation, respectively (p < .05). Results of the third paper showed that while accreditation did not significantly relate to the hazard of institutional closure, regional accreditation did significantly decrease the hazard of merger by around 3.54 times (p < .01). Factors significantly related to hazard for closure included FTE enrollment, being insolvent, and running a deficit (p < .01). In addition to regional accreditation, other factors significantly related to hazard of merger included being insolvent in the prior year, and the amount of deficit from the prior year (p < .05). Conclusion: Recent changes have endangered the survival of colleges and universities. Demographic shifts are reducing the relative abundance of students and decreased public funding stretches college and university budgets. As market pressures are brought to bear, accreditors are in a unique position to respond. This series of studies highlights the ongoing need of stakeholders and policymakers to consider the purpose of accreditation. If accreditors aim to provide a mission-centered review, they must counteract systemic barriers and biases. If accreditors are expected to correct institutional shortcomings, negative actions to that end should not cause unintended harm. If accreditors are called on to minimize the disruption of school closures, they need to be empowered to support members and facilitate proactive mergers.