Accreditation has no clothes

Virtually every college and university in North Carolina is “accredited” by an organization called the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It is one of six regional accrediting agencies, private, nonprofit organizations that put their stamp of approval (or rarely, don’t) on educational institutions in their geographic region to indicate that they meet the minimum standards for membership in the association. Accreditation is one of those “the emperor is wearing no clothes” phenomena overloading our educational system.

But don’t we need some means of ensuring that colleges and universities are providing high-quality education? Yes, and by far the best guarantor of quality in education (and everything else) is competition. Even nonprofit institutions, as most but not all colleges and universities are, have to compete to earn enough revenue to continue to operate. They must offer enough value for the dollar to keep students from deciding to go elsewhere. Trying to get by with low-grade educational offerings might work for a little while, just as a restaurant might get by for a little while serving tasteless food. But once the word starts to spread, the damage would be serious and long-lasting.

The accreditation process does nothing to enhance the market’s requirement that schools be good enough to meet the competition. Accreditors base their decisions not on educational results, but on institutional inputs, whether schools do things “the right way” — “enough” books in the library, faculty members with “proper” credentials, “adequate” financial support, and so on. Conforming to those criteria does not ensure that their students will in fact gain any educational benefits. There is no more a single, right formula for educational success than for any other endeavor. Requiring that courses be taught by people with doctorates, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean good teaching, although it probably does mean higher cost.

If accrediting is of so little value (and a few college presidents have dared to say so), why then do almost all schools seek it? Simple. Federal law makes it almost mandatory. Unless a college or university is accredited by a “recognized” (by the US Department of Education) accreditor, then it can’t accept federal student financial aid. Having to refuse students who are getting government grants or loans would ruin most schools. Therefore, the accrediting agencies have a largely captive market.

That gives them a lot of power, which they use to try to get colleges and universities to conform to their notion that “diversity” should be a goal throughout every facet of every institution. Accreditation standards push for diversity in the student body, the faculty, the curriculum, the administration, and the governing board. According to the head of one of the accrediting associations, diversity among institutions isn’t good enough, there must be diversity within each institution.

The diversity crusade can get in the way of academic excellence when schools feel the pressure to make decisions with regard to race, gender, or other factors, instead of strictly on merit. If and when more “diversity” is in a school’s interest, it will act accordingly. There is no justification for making it an across-the-board criterion hovering constantly over all colleges and universities.

We ought to remove the hammerlock that the regional accrediting associations have over colleges and universities. One crucial change is to decouple accreditation and eligibility for federal student aid — as Lamar Alexander advocated when he was Secretary of Education — so that schools would no longer have to worry about losing their conduit to the federal trough unless they bow to accreditors’ wishes. State governments should make accreditors compete with each other by requiring that their institutions seek bids from accreditors for their services instead of automatically seeking reaccreditation from the same regional accreditor they’ve always had.

Those changes would transform the regional accreditors from noncompetitive cartel members with great power over the institutions in their region (imagine businesses trying to divide the market up into regional monopolies — antitrust authorities would be on them in a New York minute) into service providers that have to compete. In other words, they’d have to persuade institutions that their stamp of approval is worth what it costs.