Inside Accreditation
Volume 6, Number 2, August 10, 2010


Judith S. Eaton

"For-profit higher education has a few bad actors."   •   "For-profit higher education is a morally bankrupt industry."   •   "Self-regulation doesn't work."   •   "Accreditation standards lack teeth."

Similar comments punctuated Senator Tom Harkin’s second Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on the for-profit sector on August 4, 2010. It was a grueling scrutiny, subjecting not only for-profits but also accreditation and the nonprofit sector to hours of relentless probing and blunt criticism.

The Senator and committee members talked about whether we have a few “bad apples” or a problem with an entire orchard of colleges and universities. There was no question about the apples. The health of the orchard was, for some on the committee, an unknown. Whether apples or an orchard, the hearing was a spectacle of some institutions that carry the valuable imprimatur of accreditation, both national and some regional, in obvious violation of accreditation standards. 

What Did We Hear?

This latest hearing was a grim reminder of two potential conflicts of interest and two mismatches that haunt all accreditation, not only the for-profit sector – all pushed to the forefront under the intense questioning of the committee.

We heard that the prevailing mode of financing accreditation – who pays – is viewed as a conflict. Committee members bluntly challenged the worth of quality review of institutions when this is financed by the institutions themselves.

We heard that the core premise of self-regulation – peers reviewing peers – is viewed as a conflict.   Committee members asked how colleagues conducting reviews of other colleagues can be rigorous when those being reviewed will, at a later date, be the reviewers.

We heard of the mismatch between historical and current federal expectations of accreditation. Dating back to the 1950s, government’s expectations were about accreditation as a “…reliable authority as to the quality of education….. ”  In the August hearing, senators were holding accreditors accountable for all major functions of colleges and universities, well beyond the academic arena.

We heard of the mismatch between what higher education and accreditation, on the one hand, and government, on the other hand, consider to be “quality.” For us, quality is about the academic heart of an institution, e.g., student achievement, faculty, curriculum and student support. For committee members, it is about students and jobs, cohort default rates, consumer protection and compliance with financial aid law and regulation.

We can expect more. The Senator has called for additional hearings that will include hearings on accreditation, starting in September. Already, letters have gone out to schools seeking accreditation records along with extensive demands for other types of information, e.g., administrative and other staffing, financial statements, revenues, expenditures (including credit hour cost), tuition increases, board of directors or board of trustees documents, revenue generation, enrollments, advertising, federal financial aid and student complaints.

What Have We Learned?

Three things are clear from the hearings to date.

First, it is not enough for accreditation to say that we have strong standards; it is not enough to say that accreditation is monitoring problems while, at the same time, continuing to accredit a college or university. We have been handed glaring evidence that, in some instances, we are not obtaining the expected results of our practices and our standards are not met. 

Second, we may not agree with the current governmental voice on accreditation – but it is, right now, the loudest voice and defines the worth of what we do. Moreover, Congress and the Department of Education are sending similar messages about accreditation.

Third, quality improvement – the heart and soul of accreditation and major reason for its existence – is at risk. Lawmakers are un-persuaded of the value of quality review that results in accreditation of institutions, flaws and all, based on their commitment to fix the flaws. To the contrary, they appear to favor withholding the coveted award of accredited status until institutions have corrected these flaws.

What Do We Do?

We need immediate and quite public action. A number of institutions and accreditors have already launched such efforts; more is needed.

For institutions and programs:

  • Undertake an internal audit. Start with those areas of greatest concern to government and the public – not only student recruitment and credit hour, but also student achievement and other accountability issues. Are you meeting accreditation standards you helped to create in these areas? Or, have things slipped? 
  • Take quick action in areas where standards are not fully met.

For accreditors:

  • Initiate a targeted review of institutions and programs, focusing on the same areas of greatest concern.
  • Where standards are not met, call for compliance and intensify enforcement as needed to protect students.
  • Where standards are not sufficiently robust, strengthen them.

For all, be open about this effort – emphatic and clear to students and the public that this scrutiny is taking place. Provide information about the results of the work.

For the long term, even the above actions are not sufficient. The hearings are yet another indicator of the need to systemically rethink the accreditation-government relationship. Is the future of accreditation to be:

  • Acceding to all government expectations, likely resulting in further diminution of self-regulation, peer review and the quality improvement focus of accreditation, whether intended or not?
  • Seeking some accommodation with government while protecting self-regulation, peer review and quality improvement?
  • Defending self-regulation, peer review and quality improvement as primary vehicles for assuring and improving quality, while seeking to diminish government regulation?

Somehow, we must find a way to engage government in a dialogue about this vital issue.

The credibility of accreditation – nonprofit, for-profit – rests on sustaining and enforcing robust standards for quality to serve students and the public interest. To the extent that we are perceived as failing to do this – failing to preserve a healthy orchard – action is essential. The absence of credibility for accreditation means the absence of credibility for our colleges, universities and programs.

Inside Accreditation is a publication intended to keep presidents of CHEA member institutions informed about developments in external quality review of higher education.

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