July 16, 1999
A great deal of research has been conducted in recent years on public attitudes toward higher education, focusing mainly on questions related to price, value, purpose, importance, and quality. Little of that research, however, examined the public’s knowledge of and opinions about accreditation, despite its essential role in serving the public interest.
For this reason, CHEA commissioned a survey in January 1999 to learn what the general public knows or believes about quality assurance through accreditation. The poll was conducted by International Communications Research (ICR), a major survey research firm located in Media, Pennsylvania, which interviewed (via telephone) a representative sample of more than 1,000 adults nationwide.
CHEA sought the public’s response to four questions:
- What are the purposes of accreditation?
- What kind of standards does accreditation require?
- Who conducts accreditation?
- Would people take a course from an unaccredited institution?
While the survey was brief, the results nonetheless can help us better understand the relationship between the general public and accreditation.
Purposes of Accreditation
When respondents were asked to identify the purposes of accreditation, more than half of those interviewed said that each of the seven purposes read to them was a reason for the accreditation process.
- More than eight in ten cited having degrees recognized for admission to graduate school (85 percent), guaranteeing the quality of the education offered (83 percent), and certifying to employers that degrees are valid (82 percent) as purposes of accreditation. Almost 80 percent cited qualifying for government funding and three-quarters said allowing students to transfer credits from one college or university to another were purposes for accreditation.
Other highlights of responses to the question of the purposes of accreditation include:
- Higher-income respondents ($50,000 or more) were significantly more likely than those with lower incomes (under $15,000) to cite certifying to employers that degrees are valid (87 percent vs. 68 percent) as a reason for accreditation.
- Those who had attended college were more likely than non-attendees to say that the purposes of accreditation did not include protecting students from fraud and abuse (31 percent vs. 20 percent) and ensuring that colleges and universities are well maintained (27 percent vs. 16 percent).
Standards for Accreditation
A large majority of the public believes that institutions must meet moderate or high standards to receive accreditation. More than half of those interviewed (55 percent) said colleges and universities must meet high standards to be accredited, while about one-third (34 percent) said they must meet moderate standards. Fewer than one in ten (9 percent) said institutions must meet only minimal standards.
Additional responses to the question about standards were: Those who had not attended college were more likely to agree that educational programs must meet high standards to be accredited (57 percent vs. 52 percent for those who had attended). Respondents who had attended college were more likely to think that educational programs must meet only minimal standards to be accredited (12 percent vs. 7 percent for those who had not attended). Those who had earned a degree were even more likely to believe that only minimal standards need be met (14 percent).
Who Performs Accreditation?
Based on the survey, few members of the public are aware that higher education accreditation is a private, voluntary system. When asked who accredits colleges and universities, the largest group of respondents (37 percent) said they did not know. The next largest group (28 percent) identified government (federal, state, or local). Only 12 percent of all respondents said private organizations are responsible for accrediting colleges and universities.
Other highlights of responses to the question of who performs accreditation were:
- Nearly half of those who had not attended college (47 percent) could not say who performs accreditation. Those who volunteered an answer most frequently mentioned state governments (17 percent).
- College graduates were more than twice as likely as those with less education to identify private accrediting organizations as conducting accreditation (29 percent vs. 12 percent for those with some college and 3 percent for those with no college).
Accreditation as a Basis for Educational Decisions
To gauge the extent to which the public relies on accreditation to make educational decisions, we asked respondents whether they would consider taking a course from a college or university that is not accredited. A clear majority (59 percent of attendees and 66 percent of non-attendees) said they would not, though a significant share (37 percent of attendees and 27 percent of non-attendees) said they would.
Other highlights of responses to the question were: White respondents were far more likely than black respondents to consider taking a course from a non-accredited institution (34 percent vs. 17 percent). Conversely, black respondents (81 percent) were much more likely than white (61 percent) or Hispanic (55 percent) respondents to say they would not consider taking a course from a college that is not accredited.
In general terms, the survey found that, for the public:
- Accreditation is tied to quality.
- Accreditation is tied to educational mobility.
- Accreditation is perceived as a public enterprise -- to the extent that people are aware of who accredits.
What Do We Make of This?
This brief survey offers more than one message. On the encouraging side, the link between accreditation and quality reflects the general esteem in which the nation’s colleges and universities are held by much of the public. A significant number of respondents appear to value the relationship between accreditation and high standards and report that they perceive accreditation as a means to protect the worth of a college experience.
Similarly, the link to educational mobility is consistent with the generally utilitarian view the public holds of higher education (a view not always shared by academics) -- that, first and foremost, it should prepare students for a job. Whether the purpose is to certify educational experiences for graduate school, employment, or transfer, the emphasis placed by respondents on this credentialing function means that the public perceives accreditation as a gatekeeper both within higher education and between higher education and other sectors of the economy.
At a time of nearly full employment for graduates, when the premium for almost any amount or kind of postsecondary education is higher than ever and increasing steadily, the public understands that college is a fundamental component of individual economic success and general economic progress. That also is why the polls show an ever-growing concern about opportunity and access -- i.e., the fear that students will be priced out of higher education or otherwise denied the chance to benefit.
On the discouraging side, the survey indicates that the public generally is unaware of the extensive investment in its quality assurance obligations to which higher education has voluntarily committed itself; that those who know us best (college attendees) think a bit less of us (recall the responses to questions about accreditation and moderate and minimal standards, page 2); and that those who know us best are less likely to believe we can guard some of their interests (recall the responses to questions about fraud and abuse, pages 1 and 2).
Should we be concerned by low public awareness of who performs accreditation? Yes -- to the extent that we in the quality assurance community have not done as good a job as we might informing the public of the value of our work. Also, the fact that the federal and state governments are considered to be the most likely candidates to perform accreditation should give us pause. Despite their well-documented general distrust of government, Americans frequently expect government to intervene in almost any aspect of the market, through regulation and other mechanisms, to correct abuses and protect consumers. If our own voluntary self-regulatory structures are invisible to the public, the large reservoir of "don’t knows" in response to the question of who performs accreditation easily could be tapped to expand the pool of those who already believe it is the government’s responsibility.
In sum, the message of confidence in accreditation suggested by the survey should hearten those who work to further the aims of quality assurance through self-regulation. It also should hearten college and university leaders who often are critical of accreditation, although they prefer it to other forms of external quality review, especially government-based review. There remains, however, the survey’s other message -- that this confidence has limits -- which is less heartening.
What of the Future?
The survey results should lead us to consider thoughtfully the terms and conditions under which the public confidence in accreditation we do enjoy can be sustained in the future. We can use the survey to expand our understanding of how to better serve the public, continuing our examination of our enterprise to enhance the quality of our colleges and universities, the resourcefulness of the accrediting community, and the benefit that accrues to society when we work together.
Two major tasks face the quality assurance community and colleges and universities committed to strengthening the quality of their work through accreditation. The first task is primarily internal: The survey sends a message about what we need to do to strengthen the tie between high standards and accreditation, to improve how we communicate about who is responsible for accreditation, and to demonstrate more effectively the connection between accreditation and high quality.
The second task is to focus externally and pay even more attention to forces outside the academy that affect us deeply. While not addressed directly by the survey, we know what these forces are: the accelerating pace of change driven by technology; the pervasive influence of the market; and the growing expectations of public accountability. We already are hard at work dealing with them. Our response to these and other factors will determine how well we are understood and how highly we are regarded by the public and policy makers in the future. Indeed, these forces are, increasingly, part of the quality discussion.
While not wanting to make too much of this limited telephone survey, we do think it opens, just a bit, a window on the public perception of higher education’s ongoing commitment to ensuring quality, and therefore provides a good starting point from which to begin future discussions. We hope you find it useful.
And we hope that your summer is an enjoyable one, with adequate time for rest, relaxation, and reflection.
Judith S. Eaton