A False Seal of Approval

College accreditation is one of those obscure subjects that people almost never think about. On the rare instances when people do think about it, they probably do so mistakenly.

That’s because accreditation is assumed to mean that a college has passed something like an educational Underwriters Laboratories test, proving that its programs are at least respectable. Accredited colleges are good; unaccredited ones are poor or even fraudulent.

Those assumptions are way, way off target. Just because a college is or isn’t accredited doesn’t mean anything about its educational quality. In fact, I am aware of no cases where a college was denied or lost its accreditation because its educational standards were absurdly low or because its curriculum did not ensure anything remotely resembling a broad and basic education for students.

When colleges lose their accreditation (or at threatened with its loss), the reason is more often than not financial. That is the reason why St. Andrews Presbyterian College , a small liberal arts college in Laurinburg, NC, is in trouble. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) decided to revoke the school’s accreditation back in 2007 because it said that St. Andrews appeared to lack a sound financial base and clear financial stability. Therefore, the school might not be able to continue offering students a good education.

The Pope Center published a Clarion Call written by Professor Robert Blumenthal on the St. Andrews case in November 2007. Blumenthal questioned whether it made any sense for a college to lose its accreditation, which is often a fatal blow, “just because its financial situation is less than ideal.”

Correct, and there’s a “Catch-22” aspect to this. If a college loses its accreditation, then students are no longer eligible for federal and state financial aid and since most schools depend on students who can’t afford to pay full tuition, losing accreditation is almost equivalent to being forced out of business. So the accreditor’s action converts what was perhaps a serious financial malady that might have had repercussions for the students into a mortal illness that almost unquestionably will.

This week, St. Andrews was back in the news. Following the decision by SACS in 2007, the school filed a lawsuit in federal court, seeking to have a judge declare that its actions were illegal because its standards are vague and it did not follow fair procedures. The suit was dismissed by Judge William Duffey, who ruled that accrediting agencies are entitled to “great deference.” That is, he decided that the court shouldn’t get involved. (You can read more about the case and the decision here )

The St. Andrews administration announced immediately that it will appeal the adverse ruling. The legal stay against SACS pulling the plug that has been in place since 2007 will remain in place until the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals can review the case.

Wait a minute—if the school was in such dire financial straits two years ago, how can it still be alive and kicking to appeal the decision? Evidently the “unstable” situation that so alarmed SACS was not quite that desperate. Despite the dark cloud hovering over St. Andrews all this time, student enrollment has decreased only moderately. In 2007, the school had a freshman class of 216 and total enrollment of 745; in 2008, the numbers fell to138 and 623; in 2009, freshman enrollment increased to 147 while total enrollment declined to 600.

Moreover, educational quality at the school has remained good, at least according to the famous U.S. News rankings, which put St. Andrews on its list of the 248 top liberal arts colleges in the nation in 2008 and 2009. There is much to criticize in the U.S. News system, but it doesn’t call bad schools good.

It is also important to note that earlier this year, St. Andrews received accreditation from the American Academy of Liberal Education (AALE). AALE is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and its imprimatur is ordinarily sufficient to qualify an institution for federal financial aid money. AALE will not accredit just any school, but requires a demonstrated commitment to liberal education. It pays much more attention to educational quality than do the regional accreditors like SACS.

Unfortunately, accreditation by AALE doesn’t help St. Andrews out of its bind. The school has requested that the Department of Education treat AALE as its primary accreditor, but so far, the bureaucrats there have refused to allow that. Therefore, if the decision by SACS stands, St. Andrews would lose eligibility for federal funds and that would probably be its death sentence.

What is the justification for the Department’s stance? That it wants to keep colleges from escaping the clutches of a “hanging judge” accreditor when another would be more lenient? Or is it trying to keep alive the relic of regional accreditation by damping down any flickers of competition? The college accreditation system began in the late-1800s when it made some sense for the various associations (New England, Middle States, Southern, North Central, Western States, and Northwest) to be geographically limited. But today, there is no reason why a school should be restricted as to which accrediting body it approaches.

Whatever the reason, if St. Andrews fails for loss of accreditation, the main villain will be the Department of Education.

A final question leaps out from this controversy: why should accreditation and eligibility for federal student aid be tied together? The reason Congress linked them was its fear that a lot of federal money would be wasted by students who might enroll in degree mills, paying for worthless degrees with tax dollars. Accreditation was assumed to be a reliable way of distinguishing between the wheat and the chaff, but it isn’t. An educationally sound school like St. Andrews doesn’t suddenly turn into a degree mill just because its accreditation is revoked.

There is a better way to separate the chaff. The Education Department could have people pretend to enroll in schools suspected of being degree mills. If it turns out that getting your degree only calls for sending money without doing any work or taking any exams, then the “school” is barred.

Businesses often go through tough financial times. Their creditors often work with them to avert closure. It’s ironic that in education, one of the “helping professions,” an accreditor can exterminate a college that finds itself in tough financial times. Let us hope that St. Andrews avoids that fate.