Comparative Analysis of Ranking and Accreditation: Exploring a Set of Universal Principles for Higher Education Quality Assurance

AuthorSteve O. Michael
Quality in Education Quality Assurance Internationalization and Management of Higher
Education in a Globalized Society
Quality in Education Quality Assurance Internationalization
and Management of Higher Education in a Globalized Society
Comparative Analysis of Ranking and Accreditation: Exploring a Set of
Universal Principles for Higher Education Quality Assurance
Steve O. Michael1
Abstract: All universities are not equal. Universities are not equal in size, scope, curricular offerings, and
resources. More importantly, they are not equal in mission, scale o f operation, productivity, and quality. Even
two universities located within the same geographical locations may differ considerably in productivity and
quality let alone those that are located a world apart. Given the wide range of differences in the environments
of these institutions, in the political systems within which they reside, in the economic contexts within which
they o perate, and in their historical origins, the variations among higher education institutions are
understandable and frankly speaking should be anticipated. Given the differences among institutions, how
should we approach the issue of their qu ality? In response to this question, the benefits and process of
rankings are compared to that of accreditation. The implications of rankings and accreditation for two
“randomly” selected institutions in the US are discussed. By reviewing the standards used by two accrediting
commissions, a set of principles that is applicable universally is recommended.
Keywords: curricular offerings; quality; higher education institution
The truism that all fingers are not equal is applicable to higher education institutions. Human needs for
higher education are enormous, co mplex, and varied; hence, higher education’s responses to these
needs must be comprehensive, complex, and varied. If this is the case, why do we sometimes address
the issue of quality among higher education institutions as if they were a monolithic entity? The
reluctance to embrace a universal scheme of institutional ranking by some is based primarily on the
understanding that the differences among institutions are so vast that any attempt to rank them would
be futile - a case of comparing apples with oranges. However, as we all know, this concern has not
deterred the ranking industry from cranking out their rankings every year. Institutional ranking is not
only here to stay, it is gaining grounds across the globe and doing so rapidly.
1 Executive Vice President & Provost Charles Drew University of Medicine & Science; President of AGAUC, USA,
Address: 1731 E 120th St, Los Angeles, CA 90059, USA, Tel.: +1 323-563-4800, Corresponding author:
European Integration - Realities and Perspectives. Proceedings 2015
But if rankings, fraught with myriads of problems, are gaining grounds, why is the movement toward
internationalized accreditation stalling? Rankings are a simplistic solution to a complex problem.
Parents of prospective students want to select the best institutions for their children and need whatever
information there is to help navigate through hundreds of institutions out there. By reducing
institutional characteristics and activities to a single number that is ranked, the ranking industry is seen
as providing valuable benefit for parents and prospective students. Most parents do not go beyond the
ranking number to question the methodology used and the criteria employed. In many people’s minds,
rankings describe the quality of institutions. After all, whatever is ranked number one should be better
than whatever is ranked number two.
Why does the ranking industry flourish? The simple answer is money. To the extent that rankings
enable the producers to sell magazines and to the extent that they can make money from the exercise,
the desire to rank will continue to rise. Accreditation on the other hand, provides little information to
parents of prospective students insofar as all it offers is a list of institutions that are accredited and
nothing more.
Yet, many, if not most, higher education leaders know that accreditation speaks more to the issue of
institutional quality than rankings. Accreditation is a painstaking process of evidence-based peer
review of internal operations and systems of an institution for the sole purpose of providing further
improvement. This definition is a departure from the one that describes accreditation as merely
ascertaining the minimum acceptable compliance. The strength of accreditation as embraced by the
Association for the Global Advancement of Universities and Colleges (AGAUC) lies in the provision
of agenda for further improvement. After all, the pursuit of excellence is a relentless critiquing of the
status quo for the sole purpose of transformation.
Purpose of the Article
The purpose of this paper is to compare ranking criteria with the accreditation standards, in this case,
the Higher Learning Commission’s and t he Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ (WASC)
standards, describe the results of ranking and accreditation for two randomly selected institutions, and
examine a set of criteria that can be meaningful and useful for international quality assurance in higher
education. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is the accrediting organ of the North Central
Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA) responsible for accrediting over 10,000 institutions in the
mid-western U.S. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges is one of the six regional
accreditation associations in the US. WASC provides accreditation services to over 4,000 institutions
and organizations in the western region of the United States.
Differences among Higher Education Institutions in the US
In the US, there is a wide range of higher education institutions. Currently, there are over 4,000 higher
education institutions representing different sectors: private, public, small, medium, large, rural, urban,
specialized, comprehensive, teaching, research and so on. As shown on Table 1, in 2009, there were
over 2,770 4-year and over 1,720 2-year universities and colleges in the US. Of the 4,495 institutions,
over 62% were private institutions, while about 37% were public institutions in 2009. Of the 2,823
private institutions, about 76% of them are 4-year degree granting institutions. The majority of the
public institutions are 2-year (58%) associate degree granting institutions. The differences among

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