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Volume 2, Number 2, February 8, 2006
A Message From the Press?
Accreditation, Recognition and the Public Interest

The January 21, 2006 New York Times has an article announcing a moratorium that the New York State Board of Regents has placed on “new commercial colleges.” Pointing out that these institutions are currently receiving more than $100 million in state aid, some lawmakers are raising questions about enrollment and retention, especially in a context of rapid expansion of these institutions. Are students able to graduate? Can quality be sustained and enhanced with the current growth rate of these institutions?

The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 13, 2006) reports on a three-month investigation of the campus of a publicly traded for-profit corporation, reflecting skepticism about the institution’s enrollment targets, recruitment practices and admissions criteria. An article in the February 3, 2006 Chronicle raised questions about whether likely changes in the federal law governing distance education will result in more fraud and abuse with regard to the use of public funds for higher education.

These concerns about quality, recruitment, enrollment and completion are not confined to the for-profit sector. Newspapers press on the nonprofit side as well. On January 26, 2006, for example, an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer raised questions about drop-out rates in Pennsylvania colleges and universities. According to the article, 35 percent of Pennsylvania college students – 229,000 – dropped out of college in 2004-05. The article does not mince words: “Do universities knowingly recruit students unlikely to graduate?” “If a consumer good, expensive or not, failed to work 35 percent of the time, we would take it back to the store.” One can challenge the metaphor, but it is more difficult to be indifferent to the result, even while acknowledging that “drop out” can be explained in many ways.

The January 26, 2006 issue of the Detroit Free Press reports on a state audit of 11 of Michigan’s state universities, raising questions about faculty teaching load, students repeating courses and low-enrollment class offerings. The article documents the tension between adequacy of funding, on the one hand, and efficiency of higher education operation, on the other hand. The key challenge here is whether the performance of the institutions justifies tuition increases.

Other examples are readily available, including the New York Times (December 16, 2005) and the Washington Post (December 25, 2005) reporting on the results of the United States Department of Education (USDE) National Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2003. The study documented the declining English literacy of college graduates. A month later, the Chronicle carried a story on another study, this time by the American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. This research documented the absence of broad proficiency in mathematics and reading among college graduates.

Going beyond issues related to these for-profit and nonprofit institutions, the press is worrying out loud about other operations, those that deliberately set out to offer bogus credentials – “degree mills” – or bogus certification – “accreditation mills” – and the impact on students and society. Degree mills and accreditation mills are estimated to be expanding rapidly. These operations are increasingly sophisticated in their reach to students, their electronic capacity and their global scope.

In the January 23, 2006 issue of The New Republic, for example, the title of an article immediately makes the key point. “Degree Burns: The Scourge of Fake Diplomas” describes how phony credentials and fake accreditation are harmful to society. The article calls for additional federal attention to degree mills and accreditation mills and the need to protect the public, students and government.

The bottom line? In a society where some higher education credentialing is vital to economic and social mobility, reporters are raising pointed questions about the rigor and value of a higher education certificate, diploma or degree. While the press clearly distinguishes between institutions that seek to offer quality education but may have shortcomings and operations that deliberately offer bogus credentials, it is subjecting higher education to more robust scrutiny related to credentials, recruiting and marketing to students, and the use of public funds. Further, the press is calling accreditation to the bar to answer for judgments about the quality of higher education institutions and programs.

The press’ questions are hardly unreasonable. Are institutions recruiting students who are not prepared for collegiate work based on any of the usual indicators of preparation such as high school completion, GED or ability-to-benefit testing? Are institutions providing students with full and accurate information about the work that will be required, the price of their education and the likelihood of subsequent employment?

Are the institutions providing adequate support to students – academic assistance, counseling, equipment, facilities? What is the value of a credential awarded by an institution? Do requirements for credentials reflect current norms within the higher education community about the level of academic challenge and the amount of work required? Do students emerge with appropriate skills for life and work?

Accreditation has been key here, providing reasonable assurance that students will receive a quality education. There are more than 7,000 institutions that are accredited by a recognized accrediting organization in the United States. Millions of students, the public and government look to accreditation as a reliable third-party evaluator of higher education quality, seeking to have confidence in the integrity of an accredited institution, to affirm the value of its credential, to ease the transferability of its credits and to assure the acknowledgment of credentials and credits by employers. By and large, accreditation has been successful.

But, as important as accreditation is, perhaps it needs to do more. An institution can operate without accreditation. Neither legitimate nor bogus providers need to be accredited by a recognized accreditor to be initially licensed or to be granted authority to operate. The states that have this licensure or authorizing capacity mostly do not require accreditation. And, in the case of providers that are wholly Internet-based, there may be no regulatory mechanism at all.

Moreover, accrediting organizations themselves need to be routinely reviewed. Right now, two bodies carry out this work. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a nonprofit higher education association that, among other functions, scrutinizes accrediting organizations for their quality (a process called “recognition”). The federal government, carries out a similar recognition function through USDE. Eighty-one institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations are recognized either by CHEA, USDE or both.

And, as with accreditation, CHEA and USDE recognition may need to do more. Within the United States, accrediting organizations do not need to be recognized to operate. They can and do offer a range of services absent this scrutiny. Similarly, accreditation mills operate domestically and internationally without any form of recognition.

If leaders of accreditation and recognition bodies want to do more to serve the public interest, to further enhance the quality of higher education, to discourage ineffective practices in colleges and universities and to ultimately eliminate degree mills and accreditation mills, three suggestions may be in order. All are aimed at changing the current climate of opinion that permits less-than-adequate higher education and accreditation, as well as fraudulent higher education and accreditation, to prosper.

First, these accreditation and recognition leaders can initiate and lead a public dialogue to create higher expectations and a climate of accountability that will decrease the likelihood that either poor higher education practices or degree mills and accreditation mills will be tolerated in the society. These officials can continue to make the case for quality and point out that the price of its opposite – substandard education and accreditation – is prohibitively high in lost opportunity and lost financial resources to students, as well as lost talent and service to society.

Second, those engaged in accreditation and recognition can strengthen cooperation with other actors, especially state and federal government, in combating degree mills and accreditation mills. We may need legislation that curbs the behavior of the least effective and shoddiest of those offering higher education and accreditation.

Third, accreditation and recognition can continue to enhance the value of their own stamp of quality, working to further strengthen higher education by making threshold standards even more robust and providing even more extensive scrutiny of accredited institutions and programs and of recognized accrediting organizations.

Accrediting organizations and recognition bodies are well-positioned to take on the challenge of changing the current climate of opinion. They can provide leadership in educating the public. They can work together to explore the feasibility and desirability of additional federal or state legislation or regulation related to degree mills and accreditation mills. They can continue to maintain and strengthen rigorous standards for quality and to inform the public of conditions for the operation of quality institutions and organizations. These actions would indicate that accrediting organizations and recognition bodies have heard the press. Even more important, these actions signal a refreshed and revitalized commitment to serving the public interest.

Inside Accreditation is a publication intended to keep presidents of CHEA member institutions informed about developments in external quality review of higher education. Please direct any inquiries or comments to or to (202) 955-6126.

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