Consumers and funders of goods and services crave external confirmation that those goods are reputable and of high quality. Consumer goods like automobiles or mobile telephones are evaluated by organizations like Consumer Reports or J.D. Power, while colleges and universities are accredited by institutions originally created by the colleges themselves. The American system of higher education accreditation, however, is badly flawed.
Why do we need accreditation? There are unscrupulous operators of diploma mills, offering pieces of paper (diplomas) for lots of money, fraudulently certifying that the diploma holder is competent at some academic level. Accrediting organizations can separate the fraudulent operators from legitimate providers. The federal government then provides financial aid only to those attending accredited institutions.
There are at least nine problems, however, with the current system. First, it is unbelievably complex there is not one or even a handful of accrediting agencies but literally hundreds. For example, instead of a single organization to do general accreditation of institutions, there are six regional accrediting groups, each with its own set of evaluation criteria. And there are a myriad of agencies doing accreditation of specific subjects, everything from engineering and business to education and physical therapy. Second, the system is costly. Schools spend millions gathering data, preparing reports, and hosting visits of academics and administrators who make assessments. Many schools have full-time high-priced administrators just to oversee accreditation matters. Third, the system is excessively secretive and non-transparent, with full accreditation reports often not made public. A school may receive overall accreditation but in the detailed report, it is heavily criticized for weaknesses in, for example, its undergraduate advising. The public often only hears XYZ University was accredited.
Fourth, related to the previous point, the often limited press releases about accreditation reports do not provide much useful information to consumers, and it is extremely rare for a school to lose accreditation. Fifth, accreditation is binary in nature it is like pregnancy. You either are or are not, accredited. Harvard has the same accreditation as Mount Ida College, a soon-to-be-defunct school (taken over by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) located just nine miles away. Yet those schools are worlds apart qualitatively by any rational criteria.
Sixth, there are horrendous conflicts of interest involved with accreditation that would be flatly prohibited in most other areas of human endeavor. The accrediting organizations are typically controlled by representatives of those schools being accredited. Seventh, historically, evaluations of schools have emphasized inputs or resource usage rather than all-important outcomes. Who cares how many books are in the library or what percentage of professors have doctorates if the kids are learning a lot? Eighth, accreditation is something of a cartel arrangement, serving as a barrier to new college competitors and new ways of doing things (including accrediting courses instead of institutions). Innovative approaches to learning are sometimes stifled. Finally, accreditation combined with federal student financial aid has been the means by which the federal government has been able to yield substantial influence on schools, leading to a potentially worrisome over-centralization of higher education and possible reduction in the often quirky but rich diversity of schools with the divergent cultures that are a hallmark of American higher education.
Do we really need accreditation? Truly valuable consumer information is better provided by private assessments such as Forbes Americas Top Colleges rankings, and by the U.S. Department of Educations College Scorecard. It would be possible to have a small, respected independent organization provide an assessment rating for every school, a number between, say, one and 100. That score could be determined by such factors as graduation and retention rates, performance on a nationally provided exit examination, job placement and earnings data, student satisfaction surveys, and so forth. The federal government could then determine the minimum score necessary for a school to be eligible for federal student aid.
There are other reasonable approaches. At the minimum, accreditation needs to be significantly remodeled simplified, made transparent, less prone to conflicts of interest, etc. Perhaps accrediting agencies should be the vehicle for providing far more detailed and consumer-friendly data on such things as student vocational success rates by major, student satisfaction with courses, etc. Then let consumers, not bureaucrats, decide whether the institution is worth attending.