Why It’s Time to End College Accreditation

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.

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder directed the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and teaches economics at Ohio University. He is also an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His new book, "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today," will be published this spring.

3 thoughts on “Why It’s Time to End College Accreditation

  1. The foundational premise of your essay is a lie. Cars literally are only allowed to be sold if they’re compliant with state regulations, and as far as I know, every state uses some subset of The SAE’s [http://standards.sae.org/uscar-standards/] standards for their regulatory requirements. Similarly, state require buildings to meet standard building codes that are specified by the SBCCI and other independent agencies. If you honestly believe society works better when there are no rigorous standards imposed for expensive goods and services, China’s just a plane trip away.

  2. “When we buy an appliance, we like assurance that it is safe, as determined by UL (Underwriters Laboratories.) “

    Underwriters Laboratories is a good example to the accreditation agencies, UL started as a voluntary collaboration of fire insurance underwriters, much as the accreditation agencies started as voluntary associations of colleges and universities.

    Over time, UL acquired the same type of power that the accrediting agencies have, state and local governmental entities required UL approval for electrical products to be sold or, in some cases, used. (Most colleges once required UL approval for anything used in student dorm rooms.)

    While the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) was recognized for approval under the Canadian electrical standards, UL had a monopoly on approvals for the American and they abused it. Manufacturers were complaining bitterly about things very similar to the issues which Dr. Vedder mentions above — and the problem was that UL held a monopoly over a needed approval. Much like college accreditation.

    The solution was competition — in stepped ETL/Intertek which claims a legacy back to Thomas Edison but is a large multi-national corporation that tests things. As the ETL approval quickly became recognized as the equivalent to the UL one, there was now an end-run around the problems created by the UL’s monopoly. Competition…

    Competition would be the solution in higher education as well, and this is where I think DeVos may be going. If Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim) psychologists don’t want to go along with the APA’s mandates of recognizing 57 genders and the rest, they could form their own accreditation commission and recognize psych & counseling programs that meet their specifications. I can think of at least a half dozen states that would immediately recognize them as the equivalent of the APA and license the graduates of their programs as such.

    This is what the Osteopaths did a century ago — issuing their own DO degree and then getting it nationally recognized as the legal equivalent of a MD degree, and it’s the only way we are going to reign in the insanity coming out of the APA. The only way we are going to get mental health professionals supportive of our values (and culture) is to license them ourselves…

    The same thing is true of colleges with an explicit religious mission, the only way they are going to be permitted to have their religious values reflected in their dormitories is to be accredited by an accrediting agency that also shares their values, or at least respects them. Conversely, as this is a free country, if the gender-fluid, non-binary folk want to have their coed showers and live sex acts in front of the library — well, Hampshire College actually is accredited and that leads to the flip side of this, the need for accreditation standards and for accreditors to be responsible for what they do.

    The current system isn’t working — in addition to Hampshire, Green Mountain College just announced that they are closing. As has Newbury College, along with Wheelock, Mt. Ida, and Atlantic Union College. Where was the NEASC? What responsibility should it have to the students whose colleges went down underneath them?

    Why should they, and others, have a monopoly???

  3. “Harvard and M.I.T. are universally acknowledged to be vastly superior educationally to Simmons or Bridgewater.”

    I disagree — I’d argue that merely “being a more selective institution does not necessarily mean that an institution is better or of higher quality”, and as that’s exactly what she wrote in her white paper on “Rethinking Higher Education”, I’d argue that Betsy DeVos does likewise.

    The students attending Harvard or MIT are of higher quality, but that does not mean that they inherently learn as much as those attending Simmons or Bridgewater State, who are not starting at the same place. Even if all four institutions provided an education of identical quality, even if all the students learned at an identical rate, the latter students would finish behind because they started behind.

    Furthermore, as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s Civic Literacy Reports have been showing since 2006, students graduating from an elite institution not only often know less than those graduating from less prestigious institutions, but less than those entering the elite institution.

    And while a Harvard diploma (and Daddy’s phone call) will open doors, if I wanted someone to actually do something, I’d hire the kid from Bridgewater State. And it’s said that while you need an 800 Math SAT score to get into MIT, you need to be even smarter to figure out how to get a dorm room at UMass Amherst.

    What DeVos points out is that the elite institutions are educating the cream of the crop and that the taxpayers are getting the most bang for the buck from the institutions which receive the least resources. And they’re not even getting into things like research overhead, and with a FAC rate of 69%, Harvard’s doing very, very, very well with that…..

    All seven pages of that paper are worth reading because it’s a breath of common sense that I’ve never before seen come out of that Department before — she even addresses the “limitations on free speech” and the attacks on institutions with an explicitly stated religious mission.

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