Will We, at Last, Do Something About Accreditation?

Accreditation is supposed to act as a quality guarantee for colleges and universities, but it works very poorly. Students can and regularly do graduate from accredited schools without having learned anything. It’s as if toasters with the Underwriters Laboratories seal were prone to shorting out and catching fire.

We know, for example, that a large number of “student-athletes” received a bogus education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill despite its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

We also know that many students who had enrolled at the now-defunct ITT Tech chain were paying for, as education writer Stephen Burd notes “Instructors (who) often didn’t know much about the subjects they were teaching. Some would read straight from the text book, while others would tell students to ‘google the answers.’ A few didn’t bother showing up for class at all”—despite the fact that ITT was accredited by the now suspended Accrediting Council For Independent Colleges and Schools. (Read much more about the widespread charges against ITT in Burd’s article.)

And, for a more generalized indictment of accreditation, we also know from the research of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift that more than a third of recent college graduates completed their studies without making any detectable gains in cognitive ability.

Of course, many colleges do have high-quality courses and programs. That is not because they’re accredited, however. It’s because they have to compete for serious students.

Not only does accreditation fail to ensure that colleges won’t pocket students’ money in return for faux education, it has other bad side effects. Manhattan Institute scholar Preston Cooper points out in this report that many of the commissioners on accreditation agencies appear to have conflicts of interest because “The vast majority of these commissioners are employed at institutions that their agency accredits….”

Although the accreditation bodies have rules to prevent commissioners from directly voting on their own schools, that doesn’t eliminate the problem. For one thing, Cooper observes, interested commissioners may engage in “logrolling”—i.e., favoring another school in return for another commissioner favoring his. But more significantly, Cooper points out, “commissioners can design standards unfavorable towards schools that are seeking to gain accreditation.” In other words, accreditation can help protect existing schools from new competitors.

So the accreditation system doesn’t guarantee quality but helps to keep out competitors who might be superior. Perhaps it is time to think about improving the system.

Accreditation never mattered much in the days when it was purely voluntary, but that stopped when the federal government got into the business of helping students pay for college and chose to make only accredited colleges eligible to receive federal money. Thus, the accrediting agencies found themselves acting as the gatekeepers for the huge flow of federal money into higher education.

It wasn’t a bad idea at the time (1952) but things are much different now. Perhaps 2017 will be the year when we make changes. Interesting bills have been introduced in Congress that would do that.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Representative Ron DeSantis of Florida are sponsoring a bill they call the HERO Act (Higher Education Reform and Opportunity). The key feature of their bill is that it allows the states to establish their own accreditation systems.

Allowing the states to decide where federal money could go would, they write, break “the bureaucratic iron triangle—the Department of Education, regional accreditors, and colleges and universities—that acts as a kind of cartel that stifles new, innovative education models that could bring down the cost of acquiring the skills that are critical to securing good jobs….”

If the Lee/DeSantis bill were to become law, postsecondary accreditation would change in several ways.

First, state government could (but wouldn’t have to) create their own processes for accrediting educational programs. They would then have the same power as now resides exclusively in the federal Department of Education to select programs and institutions that could receive Title IV grant and loan money.

Second, these newly state accredited schools wouldn’t have to be just what we recognize as colleges. They could be any form of postsecondary education that can be applied toward a degree, a credential, or professional certification. This encompasses vocational schools, apprenticeship programs, and even individual online courses.

Third, the states would have to enter into an agreement with the Secretary of Education covering such matters as the state entity to be responsible for accreditation and its standards. They would also have oversight responsibilities for the programs they accredit and would have to report on their success to the Secretary.

This legislation has the merit of bringing the country back in the direction of federalism. Under the Constitution, the federal government is not assigned any role in education but now dominates the sphere of higher education. Breathing some life back into federalism would be good. A problem lurks, however.

That problem is the potential for the bad effects of Washington’s student aid policies to spread further when states can decide to allow educational programs to start accepting money that the feds have given or loaned students.

Currently, there are many unaccredited postsecondary education and training programs that are doing just fine in a free market environment, such as the burgeoning coding academies that Alec Dent wrote about in this article. If they became eligible to take federal student aid money, would they raise tuition (as the Bennett Hypothesis suggests is likely)? And once they begin accepting government funding, will they begin suffering from the U.S. Department of Education’s onerous regulations?

The HERO Act, in short, could be a mixed blessing.

The other bill to change the accreditation system is one sponsored by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Michael Bennet (D-CO). Their “Higher Education Innovation Act” would create an alternative to the present system, an “outcomes-based process for authorizing innovative high-quality education providers.”

Under the Rubio-Bennet bill, the Secretary of Education could approve “innovation authorizers.” In turn, those “authorizers” would designate any sort of postsecondary educational institution or program as eligible to receive federal student aid money if it “leads to proficiency in a set of marketable skills or competencies” or “an industry-recognized credential that meets the requirements for licensing” in some field.

To remain eligible for federal student aid funds, however, these programs would have to meet certain performance standards, including pass rates on licensing exams, employment rates for students, and loan repayment rates.

Writing about the bill here, Senator Rubio states, “We can start by supporting the many innovative education approaches that have sprung up in recent decades, including technical schools, online colleges, and other alternative institutions. They help people get the advanced training and skills they need with more flexibility, lower costs, and less debt than most traditional colleges and universities.”

If this legislation became law, it could prove beneficial by weakening if not destroying the damaging notion that getting a college degree is the path to success. Many students who aren’t well prepared for or much interested in the standard college degree would probably now consider other options. That would be good.

On the other hand, widening the scope of federal funding through these “innovation authorizers” could lead to the same problem as I noted with the HERO Act, namely that successful alternatives now in existence would be subject to Department of Education regulation.

These aren’t bad bills, but they have unintended consequences we’d later regret and neither is a step toward what should be our ultimate goal, which should be to get the federal government out of financing and regulating postsecondary education.

  • DrOfnothing

    “And, for a more generalized indictment of accreditation, we also know from the research of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift that more than a third of recent college graduates completed their studies without making any detectable gains in cognitive ability.”

    No, we do not “know” this–rather, it has been _argued_.

    Please stop citing scholarly studies as if they were established _facts_. Just because they confirm your bias does not make them objectively correct and unassailable.
    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/05/20/studies-challenge-findings-academically-adrift

    • Mike

      I suppose we could equally authoritatively say that “everyone knows” that the book cited by this author was completely debunked.

  • Burck

    Another problem with state level accreditation is that states have strong interests in protecting their public institutions. Already, states often use their regulatory authority to keep out competing distance learning providers. In many states, this might be an additional tool to keep out new providers or at least put them on a firmly unlevel playing field.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      I was thinking the same thing about giving states accreditation authority. The Florida community college system initially accredited the new schools, and then delegated that authority to SACS, the regional accreditor, in order to avoid the appearance of favoritism. With states in charge of quality at their schools, no one will believe it’s a Seal of Approval. No one. Its validity as a measure of quality will disappear over night. What better way to bring home the bacon than to rubber-stamp all comers and cronies? It’s a perfect set-up for kleptocracy.

      In fact, Florida already licenses for-profit post-secondary schools through the Commission For Independent Education (CIE). http://www.fldoe.org/policy/cie/
      But, for all the good intentions, this has not prevented scandals and fraud. http://pubsys.miamiherald.com/static/media/projects/2015/higher-ed-hustle/index.html

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    Accreditation will continue to molder in the cupboard of Old Mother Hubbard.

    With the arrival of an ultra-conservative to sit on the Sec of Ed throne in Washington, all attention and energy will shift once again to NCLB and secondary education — much to the relief of college presidents and the OPE bureaucrats on K Street. There is enough theocratic miasma descending on the Foggy Bottom to forget that this is 2017, and not 1981. ‘Back to the Future’ all over again. For the foreseeable future, accreditors will continue to ply their dismal — but necessary — trade in the shadows.

  • JTR

    There are serious problems with accreditation but this bill will probably make things worse because it will turn the process over to state-level bureaucrats. The idea that states are going to be effective at accrediting is laughable given how “well” they are doing now at the K-12 level. If you think the US Department of Education has problems…. States already have an effective level over their public institutions but rarely use it (it is known as the state budget).

    Peer accreditation is a good idea and a much better one than turning it over to bureaucrats but the problem is that accreditors never examine the things that matter. Universities are adept at creating piles of statistical reports, because that’s what federal and state bureaucrats want. These statistics are often worthless and sometimes silly but there is an almost religious belief that they are the one and only way to measure “success.” Accreditors talk to administrators and staff, they look at statistics, but rarely if ever talk to students or professors.

    If you actually read Academically Adrift, you would notice that none of the problems identified in the study would actually be addressed by this proposal. Nor would it do anything to improve prospects for getting more students into vocational programs, apprenticeships, etc. It would not address the rampant abuse of students and student aid that occurs at the many online for profit schools. (I like Rubio, but he is in way over his head on this. There are lots of “innovative” online schools springing up everywhere. So innovative that they give you a degree without having to learn anything. Ask the graduates of ITT.) Someday, I pray that well meaning reformers like Leef will discover that technology will not magically solve the problems of higher ed.

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Why is peer review a good idea? Enron, Madoff and the financial collapse have discredited peer review in public accounting, and Dodd-Frank has introduced independent oversight; more literally, in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, regulatory oversight has been differentiated to prevent conflicts of interest similar to those in higher education. Lastly, after these crises, renewed research shows why peer review doesn’t always work as designed. The results are widespread and damning.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    What about the legislation introduced a couple months ago by U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin and Brian Schatz ? It promises far more than the two bills you cite.

    https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/09/23/warren-other-democrats-take-aim-accreditors

    This must be in comparison with (1) the anti-diploma mill legislation from a few years ago (it died in committee). That was then, this is now; and in comparison with (2) the 1992 amendments to the HEA — put in place to prevent the fraud and abuses that have now undermined confidence in the ability of sector to self-regulate.

    The Warren/Durbin legislation strips away the guarantees and privileges granted the accrediting guilds years ago. It makes them, in fact, public employees instead of sleeping watchdogs.

    And we need to bear in mind just how far Warren/Durbin is from (3) C-RAC’s feeble attempts to re-gain momentum, how far apart they are in comparison. Warren/Durbin is more like a battering ram at the gates. If it goes through, it will completely transform accreditation as we know it. But probably not in the direction you’d like.

  • George Avery

    Disappointed, George, that you didn’t mention my piece on the role of accrediting bodies on pushing the social justice warrior blueprint on campuses.