Shutting down accreditors is a cure worse than the disease

To the editor:

My Response to Prof. Vedder:

I appreciated reading your piece, Does College Accreditation Work? and wanted to make some comments in order to broaden the conversation.
Much of what you say is true — sadly — but simply shutting down or de-recognizing the accreditation bodies is a good example of a cure that is worse than the disease: Without accreditation certifications, colleges and universities would lose access to federally guaranteed student loans and financial aid, including Pell Grants. Without Title IV, something like 87% of the institutions — the ones that rely on a steady stream of federal funds to operate — would have to close down. Surely this would be an unintended effect — shutting down flagship state universities, as well as four-year colleges, across the nation is not the answer to these problems.
The current system of accreditation has evolved over the past 120 years into a largely ceremonial and ornamental process of rubber-stamping even the worst colleges that are out there — and there are a lot of them with abysmally low graduation rates that leave their students with enormous mountains of student debt that will never be paid back.
In this respect I agree with your observations, but you fail to say ‘what’ would replace the system of decennial accreditation peer-review that we now have. Responsible debate on such an important topic requires more careful forethought and research.
But to answer your question, Does College Accreditation Work?, the answer must be an unqualified ‘Yes’ — it obviously works for the institutions that benefit from the steady flow of federal funds that accreditation makes available to them. This is, I think, a more realistic approach to understanding the numerous failed attempts to reform accreditation — cui bono — who benefits? Answer: the schools themselves. And clearly they want to keep it the way it is now.
Let us not forget that accrediting guilds emerged the same time that colleges were struggling to distinguish themselves from high schools and private academies across America. They were, as they are still, membership associations, staffed and supported financially by their members — colleges and universities. This is one of the reasons the idea that accreditation is ‘costly’ is a red herring: Accreditation is not ‘costly’ because it is simply the cost of access to federal funds; it is the ‘price of admission’ to access Title IV funds.
This observation — that accrediting guilds were established for the benefit of their members, to improve the status of colleges and universities — also sheds light on the forces at work pushing DEI initiatives, namely the academic careerists and opportunists in higher education who believe they can make a difference for marginalized groups in America. The personnel that staff managerial positions in colleges and universities are the same volunteers that conduct the peer-reviews and complete self-study reports that are at the core of accreditation processes. The mistaken idea that they are independent entities — that accreditors are separate from the colleges that they evaluate — serves their interests and no one else’s (per your Item 5). This is the reason why (per your Item 3) accreditation documents and work-papers are, as you say, “fiendishly secretive” and confidential. No one outside the guild has access to such documents — other than courts of law, which can occasionally order disclosure.
In fact, there has never been an independent study conducted by a third-party of the effectiveness and thoroughness of higher ed accreditation. We have no data telling us how effective or how ineffective it is. The various metrics that you mentioned do not fill the gap, but are themselves the result of various constituencies vying with one another, including statisticians who favor promulgating “averages” — and there’s a lot hidden when you look at “averages”! Remember the joke about the statistician who drowned in a river with an average depth of three feet? The river was six-inches deep in the shoals, but nine feet deep in the middle. So, you always have to look at what is behind the “average,” that is, what the range encompasses, and for whom.
I look forward to the ongoing discussion about higher education accreditation and accreditors, but want to emphasize that you are doing their bidding when you complain about their supposed power over colleges; this is a misperception that plays into their hands. Managerial elites in academia should be your target, as I’ve said, because they run both the institutions and the accrediting agencies, and they staff and promote the DEI programs, and they are the ones that benefit from accreditation as it is now. Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian economist was right, after all; he called it the “circulation of elites.”
Glen McGhee, Dir.

Florida Higher Education Accountability Project (FHEAP)