Quality Guarantee or a Waste of Money?

Suppose that my son’s weekly piano lesson consisted not of diligent work with his teacher to perfect his playing of an etude by Chopin, but instead they just spent the time on video games. Would that matter to anyone?

Well, it would certainly matter to me. I’d be wasting my money. But it wouldn’t affect anyone else.

Things would be much different, however, if the money to pay the teacher came from taxpayers. Put aside the obvious point that many would say that their money shouldn’t be used for music lessons, no matter how diligent the instruction might be. Even pro-piano zealots would not want to pay for lessons where nothing was accomplished.

And that gets at the reason why people care about higher education accreditation: America subsidizes a great number of college students and the taxpayers don’t want the money going to waste on worthless courses and programs. Accreditation exists “to assure that institutions and programs meet threshold expectations of quality and to assure that they improve over time.” That’s what the Council for Higher Education Accreditation says, at least.

Sounds good, but how well does accreditation actually work?

A recent report issued by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, “The Inmates Running the Asylum?” Takes a highly skeptical look at our system of accreditation. The authors, Andrew Gillen, Daniel Bennett, and Richard Vedder,  conclude that “accreditation in its current form needs to be abandoned entirely.”

Don’t they care about educational quality?!

They certainly do, but argue persuasively that our accreditation system is not capable of achieving the goals of educational quality.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that the authors cite a paper I co-authored in 2002 which came to the same conclusion.) Just because a college or university is accredited does not ensure that its educational programs are worthwhile or that they’re improving.

Conversely, academically sound schools can get into accrediting trouble. The Pope Center covered one such case involving St. Andrews Presbyterian College.  Questions about a school’s financial viability (as with St. Andrews) are far more apt to lead to threats from accreditors than are bad learning outcomes.

Gillen, Bennett and Vedder note that college accreditation depends overwhelmingly on the assessment of its inputs and procedures rather than on outcomes. Schools that appear to be following the accepted model for education can get and keep accreditation. They need to have completed a lot of paperwork such as institutional mission statements and self-study evaluations, have proper facilities, employ professors with good credentials, have sufficient financing, and so on in order to earn an accreditor’s stamp of approval.

Those requirements do prevent diploma mills (i.e., educationally fraudulent schools that don’t teach, but merely sell bogus degrees) from earning genuine accreditation. (There are also phony accreditation groups.) That’s important because government student aid money can only go to schools that have been accredited by a recognized accrediting agency. By preventing students from spending their government aid at diploma mills, we deter them from squandering money on unquestionably fraudulent institutions.

Unfortunately, our accrediting system does not prevent “real” colleges and universities from operating with such low standards that many students graduate with pathetically poor skills in “the three Rs.”  It is not uncommon for weak and disengaged students to enroll in an accredited college and manage to accumulate enough credits to graduate, but learn little in the way of valuable skills and knowledge.

Those schools are different from the diploma mills, where there isn’t even a pretense of education. They have real classes. Students have to do some work. Most importantly, it’s possible for students who really want to learn to do so. Colleges do not, however, lose accreditation over pitifully low academic achievement by most of their students because accreditation is not based on academic achievement.

Accreditation teams do not attempt to find out whether, for example, graduates have improved their reading and writing abilities. The growing public perception that many students waste their college years on “beer and circus” has caused the accrediting agencies to pay lip service to learning outcomes, but their efforts have been futile. The authors explain: “Since 1992, accreditors have been required to collect evidence of student learning, but the college lobby has ensured that these are self designed assessments.”

In other words, schools get by with low standards as long as they have policies in place that are supposed to eventually improve them. Accreditation doesn’t require proof of results, just that officials look like they’re doing something to improve them.

Therefore, the authors conclude that there are few, if any benefits to accreditation. It does not ensure that the money taxpayers are putting into college subsidies is generating educational gains. True, it keeps money from flowing into diploma mills, but it can still be wasted at lots of accredited colleges.

The system has little benefit, but it unquestionably has substantial costs.

Schools have some direct costs if they want to become or remain accredited. They have to pay the accrediting associations (which are private groups composed of colleges and universities, not governmental agencies) for their services. Those costs, the authors state, are not particularly high, but are dwarfed by the indirect costs—all the time that is consumed in preparing the decennial reaccreditation visit.

One professor told me that when he was a junior faculty member at a well-regarded liberal arts college, he and several others professors were given a full year’s release from teaching so that they could work on preparing for the reaccreditation visit from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). In addition to the lost teaching time, the college also suffered considerable expense in projects meant to impress SACS, such as a new “green” dormitory, that had no impact on the school’s already fine academic programs.

The accreditation mandate also gives the accreditors enormous leverage. Many schools would have a very hard time surviving if they lost their accreditation and accreditors have sometimes misused that leverage to promote ideological agendas. The authors recount a number of instances where accreditation power was used to push a “diversity” agenda and I have often heard the same thing.

Instead of ensuring that college programs are of high quality and students are putting tax dollars to good use, the accreditation system imposes needless costs and empowers the accreditors to dictate to schools that don’t need their meddling.

Gillen, Bennett, and Vedder suggest several ways in which college accreditation could be improved, such as getting away from “binary” decisions (that is, either accredited or not), and allowing for competition among accrediting bodies (currently the main undergraduate accrediting associations have regional monopolies), but their key recommendation is that the federal government stop relying on accreditation as the determinant of eligibility for federal student aid funds.

They advocate a replacement system that would be “far more outcomes-based” than the accreditation system, such as standardized national examinations in various disciplines that would indicate whether schools were really educating students or just going through the motions. The latter would lose eligibility for federal funds.

College accreditation arose and developed long before the advent of federal student aid and turning it into the gatekeeper for access to government student aid was a mistake. When accreditation was voluntary, it probably accomplished at least some good. Now that it’s almost mandatory, it has become predictably authoritarian and wasteful. It’s time to undo the mistake.