Do today's college students graduate with the skills they need to succeed? That's the question the federal government and other higher education stakeholders—from students and parents to banks and the business community in general—want answered.

That push for accountability is changing the university accreditation process from one that focuses mainly on the qualities of individual institutions to one that also examines students' long-term career outcomes, said speakers at an APA 2011 Annual Convention session on accreditation.

The shift in the definition of quality from the traditional markers of who and what conducts higher education to what does higher education produce started about 25 years ago, said Susan D. Phillips, PhD, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University at Albany, State University of New York, who also serves on the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity.

"Do students learn what is intended? Do they get the intended outcomes of the programs of study? Years after graduating, what happens? It's a very different emphasis, and a very different definition of what quality is," Phillips said.

What that means for anyone teaching at the postsecondary level is more federal scrutiny about how you do your job, said Susan Zlotlow, PhD, of APA's Office of Program Consultation and Accreditation. Accreditors and other stakeholders are most concerned with:

  • Future employment success. Since 1998, the U.S. Department of Education has been looking at student achievement. In 2011, Congress began looking for ways to measure whether completing a program results in gainful employment in that field, Zlotlow said. Those measures of "gainful employment" could eventually impact all of higher education.
  • Return on investment. The federal government provides about $150 billion a year in higher education loans and other supports to students. Congress wants a better way to measure whether students who took out those loans are able to pay them back, Phillips said.
  • Graduation rates. Parents and student applicants want a way to compare graduation rates among different institutions.

One potential impact for educators is greater scrutiny during the accreditation process of how they conduct their courses, Zlotlow said. For example, as of July 1 of this year, the U.S. Department of Education has regulations in effect that formally define a credit hour as one hour of classroom "seat time" and two hours of homework, she said. "Your class could be sampled, and you'll have to justify both the seat time and out of class time," she said.

—C. Munsey