Stealing from Shakespeare: “Let’s kill all the accreditors.” In this kinder and gentler age, most of us would be content if college accreditors simply resigned their positions and did something useful, such as selling cars.
When you buy a car, you pay about the same as a year’s tuition fee at a good university. Yet the car is not “accredited,” that is, declared of adequate quality by an independent body under government supervision. Why is it that people pay large sums of money to buy homes, cars, boats, and so forth, that are not “accredited” by a quasi-governmental agency, while if they go to college, accreditation is required.
When we buy expensive goods or services, the private sector provides all sorts of ways of evaluating the quality of the goods or services we are buying. We read Consumers Reports or look at the J.D. Powers ratings of reliability. When we buy an appliance, we like assurance that it is safe, as determined by UL (Underwriters Laboratories.) When we buy a new house, we typically have an independent inspector evaluate the property for possible problems, and an appraiser who assesses the value of the house based on local market conditions.
In higher education, accreditation standards are established by the Department of Education largely to help future students assess the quality of a school. Those standards include education, financial, logistical, organization, strategic and economic metrics, and once accredited, entitles a school to Title IV federal funding, including federal student loans.
One thing that is never measured is the “tone” of a school, including its political bent. The number of liberal professors vs. conservative ones teaching at today’s colleges and universities is 12 to 1, and many must commit their allegiance to the school’s “social justice” agenda by pledging a “loyalty oath” in order to be hired in the first place.
Still, students can learn a lot about colleges through magazine rankings or from data provided by the U.S. Department of Education on the www.collegescorecard.ed website. With a few clicks on a smartphone, one can learn such things about a school as: What percent of students graduate within six years? How much federal student debt does the typical student incur? What are the average earnings of recent attendees of the school?
So why do we need accrediting agencies at all? Government and private financial assistance programs provide well over $100 billion annually in grants and loans to students. To prevent waste of taxpayer money, we need some indicator that educational providers meet minimal standards. But what if we simply said that “no federal student loans to four-year degree-granting institutions will be granted where fewer than a 25 percent of full-time students graduate within six years, or where annual earnings in the first full year after attendance averages less than $25,000 a year (less than what young high-school graduates average in earnings)?” Have the U.S. Department of Education calculate the data and deny federal aid to schools not meeting those very simple criteria.
There are six key problems with accreditation:
- First, accreditation is largely a binary assessment: it is like pregnancy – you either are or are not. Harvard, Bridgewater State, Simmons, andI.T. are all within commuting distance of each other, and all four have the same accreditation, yet Harvard and M.I.T. are universally acknowledged to be vastly superior educationally to Simmons or Bridgewater. How is accreditation much help to students seeking information on schools? Why not have an accreditation score between 0 and 100, with, say, 60 required to meet minimal standards, but the public knowing the perceived interuniversity qualitative differences?
- Second, accreditation reports are generally not made public. A press release may say “XYZ University has been reaccredited for 10 years,” but does not reveal sharp criticism of the school for some practices. Why not?
- Third, the accreditation process is riddled with incredible conflicts of interest unacceptable in most other areas of human activity. The boards of major regional accreditors like SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) are filled with employees of universities being accredited. The same is true with subject accreditors like the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business).
- Fourth, the accreditation process is very expensive, involving teams of visitors whose every question must be answered, long reports that must be written, and so forth.
- Fifth, historically, schools have been assessed disproportionately on the inputs used to produce services, such as the number of faculty with Ph.D. degrees or the number of books in the library, rather than on outcomes: what have students learned? Do they go on to successful jobs or postgraduate professional training?
- Sixth, partly because of the conflict of interest problem, accrediting agencies have been barriers to entry, anti-competitive obstacles to innovation. The cost of becoming initially accredited is high, and existing colleges are loath to have new competition in this era of falling enrollments. A new online law school, for example, likely would have trouble getting approval from the subject accreditor, the American Bar Association, at a time when other law schools are struggling. Antiquated rules (on the number of library books, for example) might be cited as a justification for rejecting accreditation.
Above all, accreditation should be an information device, informing students about the strengths and weaknesses of schools, but also helping institutions identify weaknesses as they strive to improve. The information gap can be filled in other ways that might be cheaper, more informative and user- friendly. Many schools use the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to learn much about student experiences at their institutions, and other schools administer the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) providing valuable knowledge of the “value added” by colleges to student critical reasoning and writing skills.
Why not require those tests of schools getting federal funding and publicize the results, adding to the information available to prospective students, and to those ranking colleges and universities? Or, create a new standardized national exam for anyone wishing to take it, the National College Equivalence Examination (NCEE), measuring understanding in a large number of topics on which college-educated persons should be reasonably knowledgeable? Maybe a high score on the NCEE should warrant a certificate similar to the GED used at the secondary level. Accreditation needs to change, becoming cheaper, more informative, less anti-competitive, and more user-friendly.