What’s Wrong with Accreditation–A Textbook Case


The world of higher education is abuzz with the news that a
for-profit university, Ashford University, whose Iowa campus holds accreditation from the
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, has been denied
accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) for its
online headquarters. Denial of accreditation for schools that already have it
is pretty unusual and gives us a rare glimpse into accreditation and a detailed
example of what’s wrong with the existing system.

An Evidence-Based Decision?

According to the Chronicle,
“Ralph A. Wolff [president of WASC]… said the extensive process was meant to
provide an evidence-based reason for the association’s decision on Ashford.”

That certainly sounds reassuring. And WASC is leading the
way on transparency, publicly
documents relating to the decision (though the posted versions of
the documents are non-searchable, a significant barrier to actually making use
of the documents).

One might expect to see some evidence about how Ashford University students are learning less
than comparable students at other WASC-accredited universities. If so you’d be
disappointed. Turns out student learning is not an important consideration when
it comes to accreditation. Here are the allegedly unmet standards cited in
denying Ashford accreditation for its large online program:

  1. Student retention and
    completion, methods of tracking student progress, and support for student
    success (Criteria for Review (CFR) 2.6, 2.10-2.14);
  2. Alignment of resource
    allocations with educational purposes and objectives (CFR 3.5);
  3. A sufficient core of
    full-time faculty members, and a faculty model that provides for faculty
    development and oversight of academic policies and ensures the integrity
    and continuity of academic programs (CFRs 3.2, 3.11);
  4. An effective system of
    program review (CFR 2.7);
  5. An effective system for
    assessing and monitoring student learning and assuring academic rigor
    (CFRs 2.1, 2.2., 2.6., 4.4); and
  6. An empowered and
    independent governing board and a clear and acceptable relationship with
    the parent company (CFRs 1.6, 3.9, 3.10)

And here they are translated into the categories of criteria
they are evaluating:

  1. Outcome, Process, Input
  2. Input
  3. Input
  4. Process 
  5. Process
  6. Governance 

The problem is that none of these reasons should matter when
it comes to accreditation. (Measuring outcomes is good, but graduation and
retention rates are a poor proxy for the outcome that matters–student
learning. See here
for more details on this point.)

All that really
matters is whether Ashford is educating students or not. But accreditors don’t
monitor that, instead they focus on inputs, processes and governance. It would
be one thing if there was one set of inputs, one set of processes, and one
governance structure that was known to produce strong educational outcomes. In
that case, basing accreditation on those inputs, processes and governance would
be acceptable. But there is no one set of inputs, processes, and governance
structure that are guaranteed to produce the best educational outcomes, so it
is inappropriate to base accreditation decisions on them. Bluntly stated,
WASC’s (and other accreditors’) standards on inputs, processes and governance
structure are neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure adequate educational
outcomes. Yet they constitute the bulk of the reason for denying Ashford

Conflict of Interest 

There is also an unavoidable conflict of interest when it
comes to accreditation. Of the 26 individuals that apparently decided this
case, 20 were affiliated with another university (3 more were WASC employees).
Given that the “disruptive innovation” of online education is pretty much the
only thing that can threaten traditional universities and that Ashford had a
large online element, those 20 individuals had an inevitable interest in
denying Ashford accreditation. It is certainly possible that Ashford doesn’t
deserve accreditation, but a decision from a body with such clear conflicts of
interest casts doubt on the validity of the decision.

Selective Enforcement

According to Inside
Higher Ed
, one of the reasons for the denial of accreditation was that, in
Wolff’s words, “This level of attrition is, on its face, not acceptable.”

Ashford’s six-year graduation rate, 34%, is pretty atrocious. But if this is
why they were denied accreditation by WASC than why do the University
of Hawaii at Hilo
(graduation rate 33%) and California State University-Dominguez Hills
(graduation rate 31%) both have WASC accreditation?

Ashford’s retention rate does
stand out as being low, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. For example,
the University of Hawaii
at Hilo‘s retention rate is almost double
Ashford’s (71% vs. 36%), but their graduation rates are nearly identical. Thus,
Ashford enrolls lots of students who don’t stick around, and graduates few,
while the University of Hawaii
at Hilo enrolls lots of students who stick around,
yet still graduates few. Which is the better approach? It is not clear.

The Result: Accreditation is a Barrier to Entry and
Suppresses Innovation

So what are we to make of accreditation, a system that
inappropriately focuses on inputs and processes, has conflicts of interest,
selectively enforces its requirements, and neglects outputs and outcomes? The
most logical conclusion is that accreditation is simply a barrier to entry
designed to protect existing universities. Why else make the existing universities’
inputs and processes a requirement for all universities? Why else give existing
universities so much say over who can join the club?

The spectacle of entrenched interests protecting their turf
is bad enough in itself, but the even bigger tragedy is that it also suppresses
innovation. When you dictate the inputs to be used and the processes to be
followed, as accreditation currently does, you eliminate the possibility of
innovation that discovers how to accomplish the goal with different, less expensive,
inputs and processes.

That accreditation is a barrier to entry–enforcing
inappropriate input and process requirements–is bad. That a consequence of
this is the suppression of innovation is unforgivable. Figuring out how to
educate more students with less money is perhaps the most important national
goal right now, and it requires innovation, but accreditation sabotages the
necessary innovation. It is time to redesign the accreditation system.


6 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Accreditation–A Textbook Case

  1. If people affiliated with other universities are off limits in deciding accreditation, where do you propose they come from? To make a case for bias I’d want to know the actual positions these 20 held, their stated & written opinions etc, that might predispose them against online schooling. Doesn’t every tenure decision at every college and university represent a conflict of interest? It’s too low a bar imho.

  2. Well, actually I think retention is as important as graduation, although I agree those graduation numbers also suck. The reason for that is that a lot of people around here seem to take out student loans mostly for the cost of living money. If someone does thatp and then drop out you can guarantee that they will not be able to pay back their loan. This cumbers them with debt destroying their future, as well as putting the monkey on the taxpayer.

  3. Albert Einstein’s famous quote, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds” applies here.
    Like other great movements, non-traditional educational opportunities will become the norm, and those schools that do not adapt will either disappear or become the anachronisms of the 21st century.

  4. These college organizations of Accreditation are totally unnecessary. What we need is a National Group of Public Major Corporations to provide a system to measure and determine whether or not a student has skills in a particular academic subject. i.e. whether or not the student understands and can use the information he’s gained by taking the course.
    Colleges and Universities are going to have to change or they will disappear

  5. Excellent analysis of accreditation, which is overwhelmingly about going through the collegiate motions the right way, not about whether courses are taught well and students learn anything.

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