When Setting our Nation’s Education Priorities, Don’t Lose Sight of the End Game

In recent weeks, as I’ve listened to conversations and now watched the first wave of nominations for Education Secretary play out, I’ve noticed one very clear thread of conversation frightfully absent. At the broadest sense, there has been a significant lack of insight on Ms. DeVos’ views on higher education, and in the most specific exchange, documented well by Danielle Douglas at The Washington Post, there has been a lack of understanding around the importance of setting, maintaining, and overseeing standards among institutions and programs of higher education.

The importance of assuring quality in our higher education system is not to be taken lightly, especially at a time when an increasing number of institutions are being called out as having poor or faulty practices, leading to detrimental negative effects for our nation’s students.

I’ve spent the last decade focused singularly on the quality of higher education programming, as the Executive Director and CEO of ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. As the global accreditor of university programs in applied science, engineering, engineering technology and computing, our job is to make certain that students, employers and the society we serve can be confident that a program meets the quality standards that produce graduates prepared to enter a global workforce. For this reason, ABET and other specialized accreditors play a critical role in ensuring the quality of education for future professionals for the global economy — professionals including, engineers, computer scientists, doctors, architects, nurses, lawyers and many others.

However, recent news coverage on the topic of higher education, and accreditation specifically, has spawned confusion about the organizations that do the accrediting, how these processes work and whether they are carried out with sufficient rigor. On the topic of conflicts of interest — an issue that has had its fair share of press in recent weeks — accreditation agencies have policies to combat conflicts of interest, but two-thirds of the commissioners who staff regional and nation-level accreditation agencies are employed at colleges and universities they oversee.

This does not assure quality in our higher education system.

We need more. At ABET, we have been holding ourselves to highly rigorous standards for more than 80 years. As a programmatic accreditor, ABET evaluates college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and engineering technology at the associate, bachelor and master degree levels. We pride ourselves in having a wide array of program evaluators, conducted by teams from academia, industry, and government — all practicing professionals in the discipline undergoing review. At ABET, more than one-quarter of evaluators come from major employers such as Caterpillar, IBM, Raytheon, Sandia National Laboratory, UPS and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

We have a comprehensive conflict of interest policy that extends to every individual in our organization, and that objectivity is something that we never compromise on. We require all of our program evaluators to create — and regularly update — a thorough list of institutions where they have conflicts of interest. This comprehensive list includes obvious conflicts of interest — alma maters, current or past employers — while also going further to prevent any possible conflicts. And the first step of every accreditation cycle is having all program evaluators reassess and add any new conflicts of interest.

Students, employers, funding sources and governance boards must have confidence in the trustworthiness and fairness of the higher education system and specifically in preparing graduates for the workforce.

As conversations with Ms. DeVos continue, and as priorities for higher education are molded in the coming months, we’d like to offer some perspective as policymakers carefully consider the future of education in America. We urge them to take care in reviewing the Accreditation Reform and Enhanced Accountability Act of 2016 (S.3380), introduced last year, and not add to the confusion about accreditation in our country.

Wherever Congress and the Education Department’s educational agenda goes in the coming months and years, it is utterly important that our appointed leaders understand the value that specialized accreditors provide in instilling confidence that graduates of specific programs have the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully enter their chosen profession and contribute to the well-being of our nation.