Accreditation–or Real Quality Assurance?

Higher education is not on a sustainable path. Underlying business models are crumbling, costs are spiraling, and there is for the first time significant doubt in the minds of parents and employers about the value of a college degree.

Accreditation and accreditors featured prominently in my book Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities. College accreditation is costly, parasitic, self-perpetuating, and prone to abuse. It is increasingly ineffective and doomed to fail in its primary role of quality-assurance. Most people who turn their attention to higher education are stunned by the barriers that formal accreditation erects to meaningful reform, a point Jane Shaw recently made.

I am not sure that those barriers matter much anymore. The foundations of higher education have been shaken over the last twelve months. Accreditation, like other parts of the existing edifice, is not as stable as it once was.

The six regional accrediting agencies guard access to precious federal grants and loans, but the real, crushing weight of accreditation lies in the ecosystem that it fosters. In addition to the government-certified accreditors, there is an entire network of ad hoc gatekeepers and auditors who want to make sure that the requisite number of live lecture hours are adhered to, that faculty credentials are up to snuff, and that quality improvement programs are in place.

There are accreditors for agriculture, religion, and athletic programs. Private church-supported institutions have their own accreditors. State institutions are subjected to periodic program reviews mandated by legislators and sometimes throw in reviews of their own to boot. State university systems frequently have shadow program reviews.

Medical schools and law schools each have their own stacks of non-governmental accrediting infrastructures, all of which throw a collective fit when there is a hint of change in the air. Professional societies also dream up reasons to establish curricula and then certify that institutions follow them to the letter.  And that does not even count the “skills assessments” usually recognized not with degrees but with certificates that have virtually no market value at all. Their requirements are just as onerous.

A provost who wants job security must appear to come down on the side of quality and so would be hard-pressed to tell any of these groups “Enough!”  The list just keeps growing.

Some accrediting is actually useful. For example, ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accreditation, which accredits engineering programs, is not required by any federal agency, but is nevertheless a much sought-after seal of approval. Most accreditation, however, is not sought after, but is regarded as a useless burden.

Not content with certifying program content, accreditors usually insist on helping. They want to make things better, and accrediting review committees are generally filled with true believers who have faith that assessment, review, data collection and continual improvement processes are the way to do it.

The real cost of accreditation lies in the proliferation of quality-guarding helpers who want to add to the pile of unneeded and unvalidated processes and requirements.  It is not unusual for a comprehensive state university to have to respond to 40 or more different accreditors. Stanford–a university usually ranked among the top five in the world–spends 8 cents of every tuition dollar on accreditation.

There are critics who claim that institutions cling to the structure of accreditation as a sort of exclusionary club and therefore promote and sustain it.  It is true that the accreditation industry is self-perpetuating, but institutions have been victims, not co-conspirators.  It is reviled equally by faculty members–some of whom compare accreditors to jack-booted police–and presidents who somehow have to justify spending tuition dollars on dozens of fake quality assessments.

In its American incarnation, accreditation exists because of the confluence of two otherwise unrelated historical trends.

The first involved the massive outpouring of philanthropy to institutions of higher learning at the beginning of the20th century. Shocked by the dismal state of university administration and accountability, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie demanded that minimal standards be adhered to as a condition for receiving grants and gifts. These were men of industry who were enamored with industrial management practices, including quality control and measurement. Thus, the regional accreditors began as quality assurance entities, like Underwriters’ Laboratories.

The second trend was spurred by the massive increase in enrollments on the mid-20th century, increases that threatened to overwhelm the nation’s colleges. The solution was to make institutions more efficient.  Efficiency in post-WWII American meant factory efficiency. By the 1950’s it was officially decided: universities were going to operate on a factory model. Raw materials (students) were moved efficiently (classes, majors, high student-teacher ratios) through a factory (universities) in which defects were discarded (selective admissions and normative grading) and high-quality products (graduates) were stamped with seals of approval (degrees).

Accreditors were supposed to be the quality control department of the factory.

That factory model is crumbling, however, shaken by new technology. This is the “Year of the Massive Open Online Course” in which technology-enabled teaching to global classrooms of 100,000 students has been the subject of feverish coverage by virtually everyone with an interest in the dire condition of American higher education.

America’s top research universities have embraced Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs as they are commonly called) for pragmatic reasons:  they raise the bar for good teaching, they are the first serious assault on bending the cost curve for the vast majority of college students, they are outcomes-based and therefore more meaningful to employers and students, and they enable personalized rather than mass-produced delivery of educational experiences.

MOOCs may be an over-hyped fad, but the educational landscape has been forever changed.

It is now economically feasible for a student anywhere in the world to piece together, jig-saw like, a curriculum that matches his or her needs and to have both the curriculum and the student’s performance certified in a way that is accepted by academic institutions and employers alike. The focus on higher education has irrevocably shifted from institutions to students.

The factory model with its manufacturing vocabulary will soon be irrelevant, and so will the language of quality-control that has dominated higher ed policy for the last hundred years. That is a shift that accrediting bodies are not prepared to make.

The world will still need as way to judge who has learned what, in the same way that and eBay customers need to know the quality of products and merchants. So what will replace accreditation? The outlines of an answer are just beginning to take shape.

In fact, some of the answers have already been tried. Take High School Advanced Placement (AP) exams for example.  Universities of all stripes routinely grant college credit for successful completion of AP courses upon presentation of satisfactory exam scores—a model not unlike the one recently proposed by the American Council on Education (ACE) for “accrediting” MOOCs.

Letting learning outcomes speak for themselves in a Linked-In network of referrals, accrediting course repositories rather than institutions, and crowd-sourcing ratings to help students choose among competing courses and curricula are all experiments that are under way.  Whatever their outcome, the future of accreditation will not be the same.

Change will revolve around outsized characters like Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller. They are the whiz-kids whose weekly inventions incite great thoughts about what college might become.

Accreditation is, well, boring. Accreditors are the green eye shade players in the drama of higher education.  It’s hard to get excited about green eye shades, but today—improbably—I  find myself excited by accreditation. To be more exact, I am excited about what will replace it.