Does College Accreditation Work?

Other means of tracking university performance are superior.

[Editor’s note: This article commences a two-part series on university accreditation. Below, Richard K. Vedder considers the accreditation system’s fundamental flaws. In part two, George Leef looks at a push by Florida to reject the system on a constitutional basis.]

When you buy a car, a piece of furniture, or a pleasure boat, you typically don’t ask the seller, “Is the manufacturer accredited?” We buy all kinds of things, even houses, despite no third party assessing the quality or integrity of the good or service being sold. Why do we behave differently with higher education?

Informal higher-ed assessments abound. U.S. News, Forbes, Washington Monthly, the Wall Street Journal, and others assess the quality and reputation of colleges, and those judgments are eagerly read by the public. (I know, as one who formerly directed one of those rankings.) The federal government (belatedly) provides useful consumer information to prospective customers with its College Scorecard, which contains graduation rates, postgraduate earnings by major, and other useful data.

With all of this, why do we need “accreditors”?

Accrediting agencies are cartels trying to maximize the influence of accredited colleges.Though accreditors were once considered a means of identifying diploma mills and other shady operators, most of their original functions are now well provided by other organizations that engage in educational assessment.

I have a radical view of accreditation. Rather than a vital protector of the public, accrediting agencies are cartels—legalized monopolies—trying to maximize the influence or incomes of accredited colleges with little regard for consumers, taxpayers (who ultimately fund much of higher education), or the broader public interest.

Below, I enumerate nine problems with accreditation that are often emphasized. I then discuss a newer, even more ominous threat and conclude that collegiate institutional accreditation as we know it should end.

First, the list of nine problems (see my book Restoring the Promise, chapter 14, for more details):

  1. The accreditation system is incredibly complex, to the point that there is now even an accreditor of the accreditors.
  2. The system is rather costly. Most large schools have at least one full-time administrator who oversees accreditation efforts, often involving many faculty members and other university personnel.
  3. The system is fiendishly secretive, with much valuable criticism of schools sometimes hidden from public view.
  4. Since loss of accreditation is extremely rare, what real useful consumer information is conveyed?
  5. There are embarrassing conflicts of interest. In 2022, School A may have been re-accredited by a team led by a dean from School B, while in 2023, School B may be re-accredited by a team led by an administrator from School A.
  6. Accreditation tends to be nearly binary in nature, like pregnancy—you either are accredited or are not, which fails to capture dramatic qualitative differences between accredited schools.
  7. Accreditation is a barrier to new entrants to the higher-ed marketplace—new competitors with innovative ways of providing educational services. The traditional four-year bachelor’s degree model must be followed.
  8. Often, evaluations are based more on the measuring of academic inputs (e.g., the number of books in the library), rather than on student outcomes.
  9. Accreditation is a device that the federal government has used to institute an unfortunate but growing centralization of American higher education.

Collectively, these nine points make me (and some educational reformers) skeptical of the way accreditation works in America.

But now there is a tenth concern—maybe even the biggest one: Some accreditors are using their powers to try to enforce a woke restructuring of American universities. These officials downplay the free expression of ideas and academic merit in favor of an ideology stressing viewpoint uniformity and non-academic factors such as race, sexual preference, and value conformity.

Accreditors are using their powers to enforce a woke restructuring of colleges.There are two types of accreditation: institutional accreditation, largely performed by six organizations serving specific geographic regions, and subject-matter accreditation, involving such groups as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), and the American Bar Association (ABA). Efforts to enforce ideological conformity or race-driven objectives are growing in both camps.

For example, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges’ Senior College and University Commission issued a “notice of concern” to California Lutheran College, a school with a 40-percent Hispanic enrollment, that it was falling behind in inclusion efforts, castigating the school for its 69-percent graduation rate for black students (which was presumably lower than that of other racial groups).

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican-controlled legislature indicated they wanted major changes in rules relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), the threat of a loss of accreditation by regional accreditor SACS led to alterations in the legislation.

Belle Wheelan, the president of SACS, has been outspoken about changes made in Florida, hinting at negative accreditation consequences. Wheelan is not an employee or even a resident of the state and was not elected by any governmental body, yet she is seemingly asserting inordinate powers over a university system ultimately owned by the government of the Sunshine State.

Accreditors’ woke standards ultimately threaten the lives of persons (through a lowering of professional standards at medical schools) or lead to a decline in the quality of lawyers, creating an associated threat to the integrity of the rule of law.

The accrediting arm of the ABA wants to abolish the requirement that law-school applicants take the LSAT admissions test, which has proven an excellent and accurate predictor of academic and ultimately professional success. Why? Because minorities, especially blacks, on average do much poorer on the test than do other racial groups. An attempt is being made to use the accreditation process to achieve a result that would almost certainly lower the average competence of the next generation of American lawyers.

The push to use accreditation to promote progressive objectives will be heightened by the Supreme Court’s affirmative-action ruling.The push to use accreditation to promote progressive political objectives will be heightened by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, in the Harvard and North Carolina lawsuits, that racial preferences to achieve affirmative-action objectives are illegal. Schools will soon try to use their obsession with race to argue that “we have to do race-based admissions because we would otherwise lose our accreditation.”

The public’s desire for information about the quality and integrity of educational institutions is legitimate, but there are other ways to assess the educational experience—including, for example, the use of a national exit examination (I call it the National College Equivalence Test, or NCEE), which would tell us whether graduating students know much that a college-educated person should know.

Accrediting agencies have so much power over colleges because they’ve been given the “gatekeeping” power over federal student aid. Supposedly they ensure quality, but in fact they don’t. Let’s de-accredit the accreditors.

Richard K. Vedder is a distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a board member of the National Association of Scholars, and the author of Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.