Many in the One Dupont Circle crowd talk a good game about the “Federal Ministry of Education” and the threat of nationalized standards. (See “The Future of Accreditation” in Inside Higher Ed by Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation – a meditation on what accreditation will look like in 2014.) But the reality is that federal accreditation has already homogenized higher education, imposing inputs and demands that undermine institutional autonomy while also making it supremely hard for competitors to enter the field.
If higher ed is truly troubled by the specter of big government, then why not support the one accreditation reform proposal that will really get government out of higher ed? This proposal – which ACTA has endorsed for over a decade – involves the simple but definitive move of ending accreditation’s role as a gatekeeper for federal funds. Divorcing accreditation from eligibility for federal funding would get government out of higher ed in necessary ways – while still leaving the door wide open for other forms of public accountability such as financial review. Within such a framework, there is nothing to prevent institutions from voluntarily hiring accreditors if they find them valuable – and firing them if they don’t.
The fact that CHEA and others have failed to support this approach is not surprising. Indeed, the talk about peer review, autonomy, and quality standards is, as Eaton admits, all a smokescreen for higher ed’s real belief that “self-regulation is government regulation that [we] like.” What this means, as Kevin Carey has so accurately explained, is “While the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars a year supporting higher education, directly and indirectly… it shall be legally required to take higher education’s word for it that all that money is being spent well on behalf of students, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.”
What should the future bring? By the year 2014, let us hope that legislators have listened to parents and taxpayers, rather than One Dupont Circle, and that they have responded to what they have heard by ending mandatory federal accreditation.