Here’s my reaction when I saw the title of “The Great Accreditation Farce,” Peter Conn’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Finally, someone’s telling the truth. Our system of accreditation of colleges is indeed a farce, a waste of “millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours.” To please external examiners, faculty and administration do work they would never to do otherwise and is of no obvious benefit to students. For instance, they prepare reports “often hundreds of pages in length and chock full of data” that will do nothing to improve their institutions.
Our system of accreditation by regional agencies is one reason among many for administrative bloat and the transfer of institutional power from faculty to administrators. Most dedicated and competent teachers—especially in my field of political philosophy—have no respect for the process at all. They comply because they must, coming up with rubrics they don’t believe in, expanding and fine-tuning syllabi with language that means little to them, and quantifying all sorts of stuff that doesn’t need or is amenable to quantification. None of the good professors—often, award-winning professors—that I know think that the accreditation process has helped them do their jobs better. It’s mainly a time-suck that falls just short of a serious threat to their sanity. So they approach the accreditation tasks delegated to them with a sense of ironic resignation–without spirit or enthusiasm. It is one of the duties for which they are paid, and not one of the joys that seduced them into choosing a profession that doesn’t pay much.
Doesn’t everyone know that “a culture of assessment” is a culture of intrusive boredom? And although its accreditation bureaucrats tend to talk up “diversity” as a some kind of competency, the standardization supported by their pages and pages of standards that must be met by every institution—many of which have amazingly little to do with education in the precise sense–actually undermines the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American higher education. It has, in fact, devalued the language of mission and the ends of education, making the increasingly vacuous mission statements and educational outcomes of our colleges more similar and more content-light.
A True Farce
The accreditation process is worse than a farce because it is a waste of time and treasure. And that in a time when everyone agrees that college education has become way too expensive. One small but real way of reducing the size of the tuition bubble is to eliminate or radically streamline that process. My question has always been: Why do colleges with unimpeachable reputations put up with this degrading process, one that drags down excellence in the direction of measurable mediocrity? The answer is that unaccredited colleges don’t qualify for federal financial aid money, including federally subsidized student loans and Federal Work-Study. Of course, that means that being accredited qualifies colleges for money and students for debt, some not insignificant amount of which has to be used for staying accredited.
In the end, nobody is really going to deny Rhodes or Swarthmore or Kenyon accreditation. That would be an outrage. Even undeniably outstanding colleges, however, routinely get tortured by the accreditation folks, being forced into “redos” on their insufficiently quantitative reports and so forth. Why do they put up with that? Getting accredited doesn’t add to their reputations; many inferior schools can boast of the same credential.
It’s not the accreditation standards are genuinely tough. Everyone knows that some really marginal and underperforming colleges get accredited, and accreditation isn’t addressing the real causes of the declining quality of higher education. The reasons for ultimate denial have to do with egregious educational malpractice and financial meltdowns. So all accreditation really proves is that you’re “good enough”—or not a fraud.
You’re probably objecting that nothing I’ve said has anything to do with Conn’s article. Well, that’s because he doesn’t really think accreditation is a farce. He’s “the man,” part of the educational establishment, no true dissident at all. Here’s the only thing he thinks makes the present process a farce: “awarding accreditation to religious colleges.” So he want accreditation to become infinitely more intrusive by becoming highly judgmental when it comes to our college’s missions. He wants to up the ante on accreditation’s attack on our colleges’ moral and intellectual diversity.
Is Reform Possible?
Here’s a quick proposal for reform. In my state of Georgia, the health inspection of restaurants is conducted rather quickly but thoroughly by an inspector or team of inspectors who show up unannounced. They get the job done, and restaurants have to remain on their toes. A bad day could get a place shut down.
So let’s have the accreditation team swarm on a college unannounced. It would check out the books, examine degree requirements, attend some classes, review the qualifications of the faculty, check out the syllabi, and talk to some students. Colleges would be required to have these records up-to-date at all times. The “inspectors” would, in most cases, quickly pronounce the college “good enough” for government purposes. The marginal cases would be put on warning and revisited, but in real life that list of losers isn’t going to be all that long. Colleges could still have self-studies, strategic plans, and develop all kinds of metrics to satisfy themselves and their external constituencies. But they wouldn’t have to undertake that optional (although doubtless often valuable) work just to get accredited.
According to my scheme, America’s adequately functioning colleges wouldn’t have to do anything much they wouldn’t do anyway—the various kinds of record-keeping are a must for any institution for all kinds of reasons—and accreditation would not be time-consuming, expensive, or a cause of tightening administrative and bureaucratic control over what good professors do. Now the scrutiny of a college, I admit, has to be more detailed and rigorous the first time it is accredited, but even then the review should be of what the college has to do anyway to get itself established.
The best argument I’ve heard for the present accreditation process is that, without its bureaucratically-impressive deluge of paperwork and numbers, government would take over certifying colleges for funding, loans, and such. And the government would be more insistent and intrusive in imposing its random and ephemeral priorities on our institutions of higher education. Well, that might be true. Still, the argument amount to this: Please endure our senseless, demoralizing, and expensive torture to spare yourself even worse torture. Surely our best colleges should take the lead in being more confident and principled than that!
Now, if and when I start a college, I would make it as amenity-free and administrator-free as possible. I also would not get in the residential or food service or intercollegiate athletics businesses, and I would, in the name of cutting costs to the bone, make our point of distinction small, techno-lite classes based solely on great or at least good books and huge amounts of writing. My faculty would work cheap, with demanding teaching loads, and without tenure for the joy of it. I think I could get tuition low enough that we could dispense with government funding of all kinds.
We would dispense with accreditation too. That might be hard at first, but only at first. The reputation of our highly literate and otherwise civilized graduates would soon be more than enough. After all, who could deny that they’re superior to the sketchily educated graduates of most of our accredited schools? Of course, eschewing accreditation—and, by extension, federal financial aid—will require me to raise significant outside funds. But I suspect that private donors will flock to an institution that cares more about educating students than satisfying accreditors.