Don’t expect accreditation organizations to provide actual evidence to support their requirements, expectations, or guidelines.
Starting in September 2017, the Higher Learning Commission — that is, the regional accreditation organization that determines whether to accredit (or continue to accredit) degree-granting higher educational institutions in 19 states — will begin enforcing its “18-graduate-credit-hour-rule” during comprehensive evaluations of colleges and universities.
Here’s how it works. An instructor who teaches undergraduate general education courses, or other “non-occupational” courses (courses not designed to prepare people “directly” for a career, whatever that means), is required to hold a master’s degree in the discipline or subfield taught. If the instructor possesses a master’s degree outside the discipline or subfield taught, the instructor is required to possess at least 18 graduate credit hours in the discipline or subfield taught. Not 21 graduate credit hours, not 12 graduate credit hours, and not 16 graduate credit hours: 18 graduate credit hours. Why? It’s magic.
In thrusting this requirement on educational institutions — cloaked in the irresistible name of “quality,” of course — the Higher Learning Commission fails to provide any quantitative evidence that supports its faulty premise that effective student learning cannot occur unless the instructor possesses at least 18 graduate credit hours in the applicable discipline or subfield.
The Higher Learning Commission has existed since 1895, and one would think that it’s had sufficient time to gather quantitative evidence identifying a causal relationship, if any, between an instructor’s formal education credentials and student learning results.
Instead, the 18-graduate-credit-hour-rule is based on “hallmarks and common expectations for faculty” that have “emerged” within the “higher education community.” In other words, “best practices.”
But here’s the problem: we often blur the distinction between “best practices” and “popular practices.” That is, practices, merely because they are popular, are often elevated to “best” practices. Once that happens, folklore further promotes “best practices” to policy. And that’s troubling, especially when accreditation is at stake.
Yes, the possession of educational degrees, including graduate credit hours, potentially adds value to one’s intellect. But higher education doesn’t have a monopoly on learning, as one’s intellectual arsenal can be fortified through other pathways, such as employment, self-study, research, reading, and writing, just to name a few. Indeed, if I wanted to learn about organizational leadership and quality, I would likely prefer Lee Cockerell, who, despite not possessing a formal education credential, has held executive leadership positions with Marriott and Disney, over a Ph.D. without any meaningful executive leadership experience.
If higher education doesn’t have a monopoly on learning, what position is it in to dictate standards governing learning? Absent actual quantitative evidence to the contrary, and as difficult as it is for higher educational institutions and accreditation organizations to acknowledge, an instructor’s possession of a magical number of graduate credit hours bears no relation to effective student learning. And that’s what higher education is — or should be — about: student learning. After all, the word “learning” conspicuously occupies center stage in “Higher Learning Commission.”
It’s time for us to question criteria imposed by accreditation organizations. It’s time for us to demand that accreditation organizations lead by example and furnish actual evidence, as opposed to subjectively popular elitist “hallmarks,” in support of their accreditation criteria, standards, and expectations. And it’s time to dethrone the myth that effective student learning is contingent on an instructor possessing a magical number of graduate credit hours.