“Whatever you are, be a good one.”
~ William Makepeace Thackeray
Assumptions are dangerous and we fall victim to the practice every day. As humans, we thrive on mastering the world in which we live. When we discover facts that are contrary to what we believe to be true, it changes our perspective. The world around us has the power to alter our opinions and affect how we make decisions. Comprehensively, this is known as the halo effect which was discovered by Edward Lee Thorndike in the 1920s. He defined the effect as, “the tendency to make specific inferences on the basis of a general impression." When we boil it down, it is the ability of one characteristic to form a positive or negative impression that overshadows facts resulting in a skewed perception.
The human brain is capable of processing vast amounts of information, but to allow us to effectively function in the world, our brain gravitates toward what it knows and can group together. For example, we crave routines and schedules because they are known factors in our day. We are naturally resistant to change because it requires our brains to process new information and gain understanding. Insert the halo effect. It is easier for our brain to process and for us to accept concrete facts than it is to make sense of ambiguity. This is why marketing companies select wholesome celebrities to represent their products and why these same individuals lose endorsement deals when their perceived character no longer aligns with the product’s image. The hope of the halo effect is that the perceived good of a single quality creates a general positive perception of a product, service, or organization, but the reverse can also occur when a negative quality is applied disproportionately.
This halo effect extends to various industries and has recently settled on higher education accreditation. Cue the groans and eyerolls. Higher education accreditation has faced real scrutiny over the past several years and for some good reasons. As the watchdog of educational quality, accrediting organizations are tasked with protecting students. However, it is not as simple as just that. Accreditation serves a variety of stakeholders and an entire higher education system that relies on imperfect humans trying to make near perfect decisions.
At its core, accreditation was founded on the premise that we are only as strong as our weakest member. By gaining accredited status, we are communicating that the institution or program meets the standards of quality established by the accrediting organization. This means that while all accredited institutions or programs meet each standard, the level to which they meet the standard varies. Variations may stem from the institution’s individual mission, unique set of programs, and student population served. Often accrediting organizations are unfairly accused of being charged with policing their own, but that is also the beauty of accreditation. Accreditation relies on positive peer pressure to sustain a continuous improvement culture. While this is the ideal, sometimes the halo effect obstructs public opinion of accreditation’s purpose.
Accreditation is not a perfect system. Much like other businesses and organizations, the system of accreditation must pivot and shift depending on the needs of students and the educational options designed to serve them. A healthy accrediting organization follows three steps to communicate value and reverse a negative halo effect.
- Creating a Comprehensive Culture: Accreditation is often perceived as “us vs. them” while claiming to protect students. While accreditation provides a quality benchmarking process, truthfully, institutions, programs, and accrediting organizations are all on the same side so we need to act like it. We hear the buzz phrase “a culture of compliance”, but that really translates into “a culture of fear”. To be successful in achieving the shared goal of protecting students, accrediting organizations and accredited members must maintain an open dialogue. One that invites questions, responds to concerns, and collaborates to improve graduates’ success. This includes actively seeking feedback from accredited members, employers, state agencies, and yes, even students themselves.
- Streamlining a Substantive System: Accreditation is a cumbersome process even for those individuals (like me) who actually embrace the challenge. Streamlining this system is a charge that is easier said than done. Accreditation just seems to be synonymous with mounds of documentation. However, like any business or organization, periodic internal reviews are vital and should be ongoing. There is always room for improvement. Sometimes it takes an external objective review to provide a fresh perspective on how tradition can be refined to serve current needs. By embracing external feedback within an open environment, accrediting organizations can make an overwhelming process more efficient while still communicating quality.
- Backing the Bustling Band: Accreditation should not be an adversarial process. For institutions and programs who demonstrate they meet published standards, they should receive the support needed to continue achieving their mission. Similarly, businesses and organizations who invest in the professional development of employees, accrediting organizations should also invest in the continued development of its accredited members. Likewise, institutions and programs should be able to rely on their accrediting organizations to collaborate on resolving issues that arise due to shifts in the market, student needs, or trends in education.
Accreditation undertakes the task of quantifying, assessing, and communicating quality using outcome measures that are not always absolute. Actions and outcomes are sometimes imperfectly linked together. A mistake could provide positive, but unintentional results. Likewise, a planned and carefully implemented strategy could result in negative consequences. While carefully identified outcomes may provide initial benchmarks, there is always more of the story to consider which is what makes accreditation a necessary peer-review process worthy of acknowledging that imperfect people do their best to make near perfect decisions to positively support students’ dreams.
After the dust settles, how did the accreditation process make your institution or program better? If it did not, then how are you going to positively change its halo effect?