A Statement from the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions on Student Outcomes
June, 2016- The seven agencies comprising the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions are aware of, and disturbed by, a narrow definition of “student outcomes” that we find increasingly prevalent in public comment about higher education in general and accreditation in particular. This narrow definition-- how many students graduate, are employed, and are able to pay back their student loans-- has arisen, in least in part, due to a national completion agenda driven by real concerns about whether students are being educated to support a thriving and sustainable economy. While these oft-cited student outcomes may be easily (if sometimes inaccurately) measured, we believe that they are inadequate measures of student achievement, and that student outcomes must be assessed above and beyond these indirect measures through direct measures of what students learn. To what extent do they achieve mastery in a certain subject area, and to what extent do they achieve the broader knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are associated with being “an educated person” able to live and work as productive and contributing citizens in a democratic society?
Regional accreditors are concerned with student learning outcomes as defined by institutions in light of their missions. We recognize that institutions differ in mission and that, accordingly, their intended learning outcomes will differ as well. We also recognize, however, that there are certain attributes and abilities of an educated person no matter his or her alma mater, no matter his or her major area of study. And we recognize that these are attributes and abilities that are important beyond the world of academia: they are considered crucial by employers as well, as evidenced in survey after survey.
Whether it be labeled liberal learning or essential learning or general education, there is, and must be, a core of any college or university program that will enable students to think critically, communicate effectively, integrate and apply their learning, and continue to learn as needed in relation to work, life, and civic participation. Terms for what is expected and the way in which expectations are expressed by the seven regional accreditors may and do differ. However, we agree on the need for institutions and the public to understand that the student outcomes that we all expect to find expressed, assessed, and achieved at our accredited colleges and universities are most importantly centered on learning; more specifically on broad as well as focused areas of study that prepare students for work, life, and the sustaining of our democracy. As agencies dedicated to quality assurance in higher education, this is what we believe should be understood as the most important “student outcomes.”