All of the iconic, popular consumer goods we buy, things like iPhones and iPods and Tesla electric cars, are not accreditedno governmental or other agency declares they are fit for public use, yet they are wildly popular expensive purchases by consumers, and watchdog organizations like Consumer Reports give us objective assessments of product quality and safety. Yet with university educational services, the assessments of school quality by news organizations like Forbes, U.S. News or the Wall Street Journal are not considered adequate, so accreditation organizations exist by the dozens, including several major regional accrediting groups evaluating whole institutions.
Two news stories reminded me that I needed to look again at accreditation. The first was that the Mother Superior of the accreditation mafia, Judith Eaton, is going to retire. Judith heads CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation), the umbrella group representing nearly all accreditation organizations. Judith has been an extremely effective spokesperson, and, full disclosure, good friend.
Then I read a routine story about members elected to the Executive Committee of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one of the nations regional accrediting agencies, serving universities in five states (including populous New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey), and some other territories (e.g, D.C., Puerto Rico). Of the seven members of the Executive Committee, six are or have been on the payrolls of schools that are accredited by Middle States (one representative works for NASA).
The college president, administrators or professors from College A serve on the board or an accreditation team this year and pass judgement on the worthiness of College B. Next year (or a few years thereafter), staff from College B will evaluate College A. Are you going to be especially tough in criticizing a school this year if representatives from that school might be evaluating you some day soon? HUGE conflicts of interest abound that would be impermissible in most human endeavors in the U.S.
Yet that is one of the lesser problems with our system of accreditation. Let me list several others. First, there are too many accrediting organizationsacceptable standards of the Middles States group operating in New York may differ somewhat from those of the Higher Education Commission operating in the industrial Midwest.
Second, the system is not very transparent: often the details in reports are not made public to avoid schools from being embarrassed. Related to that, accreditation is much like pass/fail grading, or for that matter, pregnancyyou either are accredited (passing grade) or are not (failing grade). Failing grades are exceedingly rare.
Third, this means little consumer information is disclosed, unlike with college rankings. Harvard has the same basic accreditation as nearby Bridgewater State, but no one thinks those institutions are remotely equal qualitatively.
Fourth, often accreditation has stressed inputs into the process of education rather than outcomesfor example, the number of library books or the college degrees of the faculty instead of whether the students have learned anything or have successful postgraduate careers.
Fifth, accreditation is a barrier to entry to providing higher education services and impedes innovation. For example, historically the accreditation agencies have approved schools, not courses, discouraging companies or institutions providing cheap or free courses to students.
Sixth, the system is rather costly. Beside institutional accreditation, most schools must endure additional accreditation in various academic subjectsthe American Bar Association accredits law schools, for example, and the AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) approves business schools. Most large schools have full-time administrative staff involved in accreditation approvals.
Seventh, accreditation is a way the federal government has used to increase its mostly unsuccessful regulation of higher education institutions. Individuals cannot receive federal student financial aid unless they attend an accredited institution, and, ultimately, the U.S. Department of Education itself accredits the accreditation agencies.
CHEA is part of the One DuPont Circle (Washington, D.C.) cabal that thinks it speaks for higher education in America but which in fact, by its constraining of competition, has robbed it of some of its vitality and diversity. It is the decentralized nature of American colleges that increases choice and competition, and accreditation as it works today detracts from it. It needs to be abolished or radically reformed.