Accreditation is rapidly changing. Instead of remaining just a mildly annoying
and inefficient barrier to innovation and change in higher education, it is
evolving into a major impediment. Increasingly outrageous decisions by power
hungry accreditation czars are becoming a serious problem. I have recently written
about this issue here,
but the problem is growing so rapidly that more needs to be said.
The most recent outrage comes from the Higher Learning
Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association, the nation’s largest
regional accrediting organization. The HLC has issued a stern fatwa: education is a public, not a
private good, and the mission of accredited institutions must reflect
that. The accreditation standards make
it explicit that “educational responsibilities
take priority over other purposes,
such as generating financial returns for investors….” This statement, if interpreted narrowly, could
mean that for-profit higher education is not permitted. Already politicians
like Senators Dick Durbin and Tom Harkin have publicly called for the HLC to
critically examine the University of Phoenix, which might largely explain why that
institution–by some measures America’s largest university– is on probation.
In short, the whole process is increasingly being politicized, with senators
telling accrediting agencies what to do -and those agencies are listening.
the New Competition
Academics for the most part do not understand markets or
the constructive role that profits play in allocating resources and ultimately
in raising living standards. They mostly welcome the attacking of the new
competition from the for-profits, institutions that have shown an ability to
educate students more efficiently than traditional schools. The accrediting agencies are controlled by
academics from traditional institutions who want any excuse to use their
accrediting power to suppress the for-profit schools that have captured close
to 10 percent of the market.
Once considered a mechanism to uphold minimum academic
standards, accreditation now increasingly is designed as a device to impose
politically correct ideologies supported by the accrediting agencies. Thus HLC-accredited schools must be sure that
the “institution’s processes and activities reflect attention to human
diversity.” As Richard Sander and Stuart
Taylor have so brilliantly demonstrated in Mismatch,
this means schools are being pressured to give preferential treatment to those
in favored groups, such as blacks and Hispanics, as opposed to those in groups
with less favorable skin coloring, such whites
and Asians. HLC is far from alone in doing this. The American Bar Association,
which accredits law schools, has been particularly vicious in its apparent
insistence that law schools show racial preferences in their admission practices,
as any long-time faculty member at the George Mason Law School (which has been
especially harassed by the ABA) will attest.
High-Minded New Racism
To me “racism” means expressing views and taking actions
on the basis of the race or ethnicity of individuals or groups of peoples.
Therefore, I think the accrediting agencies are at the forefront of a New
Racism -pressuring university personnel to consider carefully race in making
decisions regarding admissions, hiring, and contracting. Thus not only do they promote inefficiency,
by my way of thinking they are morally reprehensible.
But what do we do? Do we need accrediting agencies? They certainly do not perform the meaningful
function of assuring quality, as they expend great efforts attacking some of
the nation’s greatest schools, such as the University of Virginia, while ignoring
other institutions with six-year
graduation rates that are barely in the double digits. Being immodest for a moment, I think my
Center for College Affordability and Productivity does more to provide consumer
information (by doing the Forbes Magazine
ranking of colleges and universities) than HLC–at a tiny fraction of the cost.
So do other ranking organizations, such as US
News & World Report.
The only significant raison
d’etre for accreditation today is that it distinguishes schools that are so
bad that they are undeserving of federal financial assistance (for either the
school or its students). If the federal government got out the business of
throwing money at higher education -an eminently sensible idea – accreditation
would undergo a precipitous decline. Unfortunately, that is not likely to
happen any time soon.
Measure of Workplace Competence
There is much to be said for moving to alternative ways
of certifying college worthiness, ways that are not binary in nature (you are
either accredited or not accredited). One approach would be to develop a
national Higher Education Institutional Quality Index which draws from the
ranking methodologies used by people like Bob Morse at US News and myself for Forbes.
A key component of that index could be a national exit examination for college
graduates that measures general educational knowledge.
This also could be of great use to employers in lieu of,
or in addition to, a diploma as a certification device regarding workplace
competence. What about an Index, one-third based on the exit examination,
one-third on the post-graduate vocational/educational experience of students,
and one-third on four- or five-year graduation rates? The index could be
constructed so “value added” by the institution becomes part of the score -a
school taking less able students cannot be expected to have graduates who score
as well on the exit exam as those at elite selective admission schools. The index
could be computed so the top-ranked school gets a score of 100, and others are
accordingly given a numeric value. The U.S. government could deny aid to
students and institutions scoring below, say, 20. Colleges are loathe to be
compared with one another, so they would fight this approach tooth and nail.