Accreditation Warning: How Big a Deal is It?
If nothing else, living with this scandal for the past nine months is making me a more savvy consumer of the news. Around the magazine office we’re constantly sending each other links to news articles—”Have you seen this one?”—and often someone will give the rest of us a decent analysis of how much weight we should give to that particular article.
All of us worked in some form of journalism or another before coming to the magazine, with Lori Shontz ’91 probably having had the longest career—she’s been a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and right before we hired her she was Sunday sports editor at the Miami Herald. And Lori teaches an undergraduate class in news writing, so she’s especially attuned to these things. I’ve learned a lot from hearing her evaluate the quality of various news stories.
The idea of looking at the news with a critical eye, and not being too reactive to everything I read, came in handy on Monday evening, when word came out that Penn State had received a warning from its accrediting organization—the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The early stories seemed to be based primarily on a Penn State news release, and they came off as little alarmist, talking about how Penn State’s accreditation “is in jeopardy” and laying out the calamities that would ensue if Penn State lost accreditation: students fleeing, federal funding drying up, and so on.
To be fair, the Middle States Commission did use the phrase ”in jeopardy” in its Aug. 8 letter to Penn State. And for Penn State to lose its accreditation would indeed be huge. But what was lacking in the early news reports was an assessment of how likely that was, or any sort of context as to what it means to receive a warning from the Middle States Commission.
Within about 24 to 36 hours, though, some better, more informative stories started to appear. I’d recommend reading this one in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which talks about some of the other schools that have received warnings in recent years, and which quotes the president of the American Council on Education as saying Penn State is “a great university. Its academic quality is superb. …If I were a mother of a youngster who had been accepted to Penn State, there is nothing in this set of events that would cause me to have second thoughts about the choice of school.”
There’s also this story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which quotes Don Heller, dean of the College of Education at Michigan State, as saying: “I frankly wouldn’t be too concerned about it from Penn State’s perspective. I don’t think Middle States is looking to revoke the university’s accreditation.” Don is former director of Penn State’s Center for the Study of Higher Education and someone whose opinions I’ve come to trust a lot. (He also was one of the experts in our student-affordability roundtable in the magazine a few years back.)
Incidentally, Penn State has a Web page devoted to its accreditation—it has a link to the Middle States Commission’s letter, as well as to some of the previous interactions between the university and the accrediting agency since last November.
Tina Hay, editor