What’s the Point of Accreditation?

Although I have taught in a business school since 2004, I’ve never quite understood what AACSB (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) accreditation does. I respect the time and effort that many of the higher-ups in my school spend on the process of acquiring and maintaining accreditation, but the more I learn about that process, the more I question the assumption that it is necessary or even useful for anyone outside the ivory tower.

In the first few months of this year, three fairly large stones were cast in the direction of business schools.  Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift noted that business students fell near the bottom of the pack in critical thinking ability gains.  Diana Middleton’s Wall Street Journal article “Why Can’t MBA Students Write” detailed employers who are recognizing the poor writing skills of the MBA students that they hire. Finally, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Glenn’s “Business Educators Struggle to Put Students to Work” explored the perceived intellectual vapidness of business education.

For a long time, business education has been seen by many students (and their parents) as a form of unemployment insurance.  Regardless of whether there is any learning behind the credential, the holder could fall back on it whenever he was in the job market.  The business major appeared to be a safe bet for future employment as opposed to studying philosophy and “wondering what to do with my degree.”

That no longer seems to be the case, both because of today’s economic conditions and because the business schools are unable to guarantee the competence of their graduates.

So where is the accreditor? The AACSB positions itself as a primary certifier of quality in business education.  (Business schools obtain specialized accreditation even when they are part of a larger institution that has regional accreditation.) Other business-school accrediting organizations exist, such as ACBSP (the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs), but AACSB is 70 years older than ACBSP, and it has a stranglehold on the business-school accrediting market. 

Thus, any outcomes associated with business students in accredited schools ultimately reflect back on AACSB accreditation. As we’ve seen, in 2011 those outcomes are not very impressive. 

AACSB is not shy about advertising the supposed benefits of accreditation.  According to the organization’s site:

One of the worst feelings is paying more for something than it is really worth. That feeling is even worse when you graduate and find out that you cannot get a job with the degree you have. Or, when you find out that your future grad school doesn’t recognize your bachelor’s degree.

Don’t take a chance on a school that may or may not provide you with what you need to succeed. You need a job after you graduate. And, you need to know that what you have learned will be useful in the workplace.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that many business school graduates don’t learn much that “will be useful in the workplace.”

AACSB also makes claims regarding future job performance of students from schools it has accredited:

Companies also have studied the differences between employees who have attended AACSB-accredited business schools and those who have not. For instance, one company found that employees who were educated by non-AACSB-accredited business schools had lower levels of performance. Because of this, the organization now only reimburses tuition from AACSB-accredited business schools.

That’s evidence of the value of accreditation? One unnamed company found “better performance” by graduates of AACSB-accredited business schools?  Given the recognized lack of learning displayed by business students, I question whether accreditation is a determining factor in job performance at all.

Some of AACSB’s other stated benefits are head-scratching. The organization advertises that major companies recruit exclusively from accredited schools. This may be true on some level, but the main job descriptions that require a degree from an accredited school are university postings for academic positions.  A few companies, such as Intel, have publicly stated that they will reimburse only MBA courses taken at AACSB-accredited business programs. But there are hardly any employment restrictions for BAs by Intel or other companies.

A keyword search for AACSB on monster.com returned 275 job results—for 275 openings in Healthcare Administration for the U.S. Navy. Conversely, the global financial consulting firm Deloitte has over 1,000 postings for consulting-type positions with only “Bachelor’s Degree in….” as the educational requirement.

Furthermore, even though accreditation standards allow schools to set their own goals, the majority of accredited schools look very much alike.  This is especially notable for faculty composition.

AACSB accreditation standards require schools to have at least 50 percent of faculty designated as “academically qualified”—and the primary means of qualification is a doctorate.  On paper, this 50-percent notion allows for synergy between theorists (presumably, those who have the Ph.D.s) and professionals (those with business experience). In my experience, the professional faculty pick up the scraps—those courses that the tenured faculty do not want to teach. 

To make matters worse for students, in order to maintain accreditation academically qualified faculty must remain current in their fields. While the standards allow for flexibility in remaining current, in practice this means achieving a set number of publications in five years, even for professors with a 4/4 load at a teaching-oriented school. Because the publication process takes time, faculty do just the bare minimum in teaching in order to spend the appropriate time conducting research for publication in marginal journals that are read by very few people (and none of those readers are practicing businesspeople). This process puts a premium on creating superficial knowledge instead of disseminating valuable wisdom.

Accreditation is neither necessary nor sufficient for quality learning experiences. A high quality degree program is created when students interact with a cadre of dedicated faculty. At most, accreditation observes, recognizes, and sometimes motivates educational quality created within the institution.

I question whether schools need to be accredited in order to successful plan a coherent academic program.  What’s ironic here is that AACSB seems to agree with me.  The previous paragraph was taken from page 3 of the AACSB accreditation standards document (a PDF).

I have taught business classes at both accredited and non-accredited schools and have seen no noticeable difference between the two in student performance, academic content, and overall rigor. I could even make the argument that employers are likely to get better performance from the “average student” at the non-accredited private liberal arts school where I taught because of the higher motivation level of the students who enrolled there and the strong alumni network that recruited heavily from the student body.

Accreditation will continue to be part of business school life because of its historical significance.  But I’d love to modify the process to better enforce rigor upon the excessive number of adrift students who enroll in college today. There may have been a time when the accreditation status had a stronger association with educational quality, but in 2011 AACSB accreditation is a well-intentioned process that mainly serves as window dressing.  Its main function today simply signals that a given school is not a faux institution that just put out a shingle and called itself a business school.  It does no more than that.