Current Issues

The give and take of media

Posted on October 5, 2009

I have learned the hard way that any time we deal with the press we are taking a risk that they will get something wrong.  It’s a worthwhile risk, because whatever consternation I feel in the short run is outweighed by the long term name recognition.  Six months later people will mostly not remember what they read about an institution, but they will recognize its name. 

In today’s Chroncile of Higher Education we are the lead in a story about specialized accreditation and I winced at the headline: Struggling Colleges Question the Cost — and Worth — of Specialized Accreditation.   The headline writer’s mistake notwithstanding (in the year just ended we had record enrollments, a 6% operating surplus, and S&P upgraded our credit worthiness — if that’s “struggling,” I’ll happily struggle every year), the reporter was closer to the core of the story as he and I originally discussed it.  Though even he missed the bigger point.

It is not so much a question of how much one might invest in a specialized accreditation such as AACSB.  It is a question of whether that is the best place in which to invest and what dynamics it enables or constrains.  What was missing from the story was the discussion of whether such accreditations actually improve student learning and the teaching we do in our classrooms, whether they fuel mission drift, and how they shift the focus from students to compliance with accreditation demands. 

The one important dimension that was captured is the question of continuing and part-time education.  The Business School deans from BU and Northeastern touch upon this subject and I have spoken to both of them regarding their frustrations with AACSB.  As one said to me, “I spend 65% of my time on complying with AACSB standards instead of actually working to improve the experience of students.”  At SNHU, our non-traditional programs are our economic engine in terms of growth and staying in the black, so the philosophical discussions we might have about reputation and marketing were rendered moot when we came to understand the structural impediments to securing AACSB accreditation.  When we learned that AACSB accreditation would severely impact our ability to run our COCE programs the discussion was closed.

I also would not put much store in the Georgia Southwestern example offered in the article.  Its Business School is small in comparison to ours, it has a few non-traditional programs, and the comments about international students is contradicted by our experience.  I can not argue, however, that a perception of higher quality comes with AACSB accreditation.

So, as in most things in life, there are trade offs.  If we had AACSB accreditation we would certainly market it and stake a claim to even better quality (whether or not we believe one leads to the other).  Those who argued for pursuing AACSB accreditation had reasonable arguments grounded in the same good intentions we all share: to improve our programs, our reputation, and the value of an SNHU degree. 

Returning to where I started, I may or may not write a letter to The Chronicle clarifying our situation and our thinking on the topic, but in the meantime I would not get too exorcised about the story.  In the long run, we  sometimes get a better slant and more oomph than we deserve (I can’t believe the SNHU Advantage story got the play it did, as proud as we were of that modest program) and sometimes we get a worse slant (as in today’s story), but over time it’s our name that people will remember.

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