What should we do about college accreditation?

College accreditation is a little-understood aspect of our system of higher education. Most people don’t know how it operates, but believe that accreditation is a guarantee of reasonably good educational quality.

Sadly, that is far from the truth. A college or university can be accredited and yet offer pathetically weak academic programs. A recent report issued by the U.S. Department of Labor tears into the accreditation system with surprising frankness.

In “The Need for Accreditation Reform,” Robert C. Dickeson begins by explaining that “The standards for accreditation…are based on an institution’s self-study of the extent to which the institution feels it has met its own purposes.” Since college and university mission statements are never couched in precise language about educational results, that means that accrediting bodies don’t focus on questions pertaining to the central point of college life (what do students learn?) but rather on peripheral matters.

To become accredited by one of the six regional accrediting associations (in North Carolina, it is the South Association of Colleges and Schools), an institution needs to satisfy the association’s standards for a variety of inputs such as the size of the library, the academic credentials of the faculty, and financial support. About the only way to lose accreditation once gained is to become financially insolvent, although institutions sometimes are given lesser sanctions for other infractions like awarding too many “life experience” credits. One looks in vain for schools that have lost accreditation because they have many courses where the material is frivolous and the grading standards are lax.

Defenders of the accreditation game say that it compels institutions to look at their strengths and weaknesses and thereby helps to promote quality. There’s nothing special about accreditation in that regard, though. Colleges and universities would be compelled to examine their operations anyway by a force much more powerful than accreditation – the force of competition. Even non-profit institutions (as most colleges and universities still are) have to make sure that they are worthy of support from students and donors.

Suppose it’s true that accreditation is no guarantee of educational quality — why make a fuss about it? If it’s just a waste of time and money to go through the routine of a campus visit and all the attendant paperwork, wouldn’t schools just turn a cold shoulder to the whole idea? Here’s the reason why most want accreditation: without it, they can’t receive federal student aid money. Without students who depend on such aid, many schools would have to shrink considerably.

When the federal government began dispensing student aid money, the worry was that some students might take their money and waste it at “diploma mills.” The solution was to restrict eligibility to schools accredited by one of the federally “recognized” accreditation agencies, which were presumed to only put their stamp of approval on “real” colleges.

The problem is that “real” colleges are often indifferent to their academic integrity, yet they remain accredited despite the fact that many students coast through to degrees in a “beer and circus” atmosphere (to borrow the title of a book by Professor Murray Sperber). Dickeson points to the results of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (previously discussed in Clarion Call) showing that a shockingly low percentage of college graduates are “proficient” readers. Schools that will graduate students with abysmally low literacy are scarcely better than diploma mills, but their “accredited” status gives them an aura of respectability – as well as eligibility for federal money.

Dickeson failed to include one negative aspect of accreditation, namely that it confers power on the accreditors to strong-arm schools into going along with demands for more steps toward “diversity.” One professor I know told me that his school had recently been through re-accreditation and the recommendations were silent about what he termed its “obvious academic deficiencies” but dwelt at length on the need for a more “diverse” faculty, student body, and curriculum.

Accreditation is mostly a failure, but what should we do?

The paper advocates the creation of a National Accreditation Foundation, which would be a “private-public operating partnership.” Its mission would be to “create and maintain quality standards that are at once rigorous and transparent.”

Even if there were a constitutional role for the federal government to play in higher education (which there isn’t), I wouldn’t be eager to have a National Accreditation Foundation. Dickeson and Commission Chairman Charles Miller are able to clearly see the quality problems we have in higher education, but they wouldn’t be running the Foundation or writing the standards. In all likelihood, the Foundation would eventually (and probably quite soon) be captured by higher education interests, just as most regulatory bodies have been captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate. Supposing that good quality standards could be written initially, they would probably be watered down in time, or ignored.

What we really need is an educational analog of Underwriters Laboratories – a non-governmental entity that would assess colleges based on their success at adding educational value. A lot of accredited schools would shudder at that.

George Leef is executive director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh

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