Accreditation, Professional Interest and the Public Interest: Conflict or Convergence?

October 31, 2006

"Accreditation, once primarily a private relationship between an agency and an institution, now has such important public policy implications that accreditors must continue and speed up efforts toward transparency as this affects public ends."

These are words from the final report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education. They speak to the extent to which accreditation does — or does not — respond to the need to serve the public interest. The words call into question whether and how accreditation performs this role and what is needed to serve the public interest in the future.

Accreditation and Expectations of "Serving the Public Interest"

When accreditation effectively serves the public interest, it engenders confidence and encourages trust in the quality of higher education institutions and programs for students, families, government, taxpayers and others in the public. Accredited status serves as a powerful signal that institutions and programs are competent in at least five core areas. Specifically, they:

  • Provide at least threshold academic quality by sustaining and improving effective practices in student learning, research and service (Academic Quality);
  • Provide value for money: tuition dollars, whether from private or public sources, yield respected and reliable credentials as acknowledged by higher education institutions when students transfer or employers when students apply for positions (Value for Money);
  • Are efficient and effective in the use of public and private resources, e.g., federal and state student grants and loans, state operating funds for institutions, private and corporate foundation grants and individual donations (Efficiency and Effectiveness);
  • Provide some measure of protection to students from substandard or fraudulent education practices such as questionable recruitment and marketing practices (Student Protection); and
  • Provide comprehensive and readily accessible information to the public about their operation and their results (Transparency).

While the various accrediting organizations have standards that go well beyond the core indicators, these are central to what it means to assure the public that accreditation and higher education are worthy of confidence and trust.

We know that accreditation passes the test of serving the public interest when aspiring students indicate that they will consider attending institutions or programs only if they are accredited. We know that the public interest is served when government or the private sector will provide funds only to accredited institutions or programs and when institutions or programs will accept transfer credit only from accredited institutions or programs.

The Value of Past Practice: Accreditation's Indirect Approach to Serving the Public Interest

When accreditation was created 100 years ago, it sought, first and foremost, to serve higher education institutions and programs. And it was successful. Accreditation was and is routinely acknowledged by higher education as its primary means to assure academic quality. Accompanying this was an awareness that, by serving higher education, accreditation, however indirectly, also provided important service to the public. Information developed with institutions and programs about their quality could, at least in part, be shared with the public. If the higher education community had confidence and trust in the work of accreditation, so should the public.

This indirect approach worked for the many years when higher education was a relatively small enterprise, mainly selective and with limited impact on the general public. Higher education was not yet viewed as having responsibility to serve the majority of the population. However desirable, higher education was not yet central to obtaining a good job and success with other life chances, although it was vital for intellectual development.

With higher education now a mass endeavor and essential to more and more of the population, the indirect approach of accreditation in serving the public interest is being called into question. Given the increasing centrality of both higher education and accreditation to so many in society, "serving the public interest" now requires a more direct and robust response.

External Pressures: The Current Accountability Climate and Accreditation Serving the Public Interest

Most accrediting organizations work assiduously to assure that they and the institutions and programs they review are worthy of public confidence and trust. Yet, the current climate is a difficult one, with the enterprise often challenged to do more. Accreditation is at times described even as failing to engender confidence and trust. How might this disaffection be explained?

Part of the explanation rests with the escalating concerns of federal and state government about accountability in higher education. More and more, elected officials insist that broad access to quality higher education is urgently needed and is essential to the future economic and social well-being of individuals and of the society as a whole. These officials need reassurance from accreditation about the effectiveness of colleges and universities.

In addition, in the 1950's, federal officials, handed accreditation the powerful role of screening colleges and universities for eligibility for federal funds or "gate keeping." This screening role, more than 50 years later, now makes as much as $100 billion annually subject at least in part to the judgment of these accreditors — a dramatic escalation of financial investment over the years and thus another cause for increasing government concern.

Both the heightened concern for accountability and the greater impact of the pivotal screening role of accreditation in federal and state funding have contributed to the current questioning of how well accreditation serves the public interest.

Within the Enterprise: Important Claims on the Attention of Accreditation

There are other significant claims on the time and attention of accrediting organizations, beyond serving the public interest. First, the institutions and programs that originally established accreditation have their own culture and practices and expect accreditation not only to assure quality, but also to reflect their respective interests and needs. For example, it is through the accreditation arms of professional bodies that changes in professional standards are often affirmed and enforced. In institutional accreditation, influences on the culture and popular trends of colleges and universities often find their way into accreditation standards as with, for example, accreditation reinforcing the assessment movement.

Second, accreditation itself is a community of professionals, men and women who have considerable expertise and experience in quality review, assessment, quality assurance and quality improvement. Ongoing efforts to enhance the enterprise have an important claim on the attention of this community.

Third, as with any self-regulatory system, the relationship between accreditors and the institutions and programs that created accreditation is one of delicate balance. Sustaining the health of this important relationship is yet another claim on the attention of accreditation. Institutions and programs not only established these bodies, but remain key sources of ongoing finance and governance. The financing of accreditation by those who are accredited means that there is ongoing pressure on accreditation to avoid conflict of interest such as deriving financial benefit from expanding the number of accredited institutions or programs. Governing accreditation by those who are themselves accredited raises other conflict concerns, such as avoiding temptation to relax the rigor of quality standards in order to expand membership.

However laudable they are, these additional claims on the attention of accreditation — meeting the needs of the higher education culture and the professions, improving the practice of accreditation, the struggle to maintain balance in the self-regulatory relationship — can lead to behaviors that are at variance with directly serving the public interest. For example, accrediting organizations might believe they need to focus greater attention on the needs of the higher education community than of the public and to emphasize the robust engagement of professionals while paying less attention to engagement of the public.

The Public Interest and Professional Interest: Effective Practices for Convergence

Even while acknowledging the past practice and the significant internal claims on the attention of accreditation, it is nonetheless very much in the professional interest of these organizations to provide additional, robust attention to the public interest. To this end, accreditors would benefit from routinely asking themselves probing question to determine how well they serve the public interest, building confidence and trust. And it behooves accrediting organizations, where appropriate, to expand and strengthen their efforts in this important area.

Accrediting organizations need a public interest audit or checklist to:

  1. Assure that accreditation reviews are structured such that accredited institutions and programs meet the test of the five confidence-building indicators noted above: academic quality, value for money, efficiency and effectiveness, student protection and transparency.
  2. Assure engaged and energetic public involvement by balancing higher education community and professional interests in the participation on decision-making and governance bodies, site visit teams and the development of accreditation standards, thus going beyond minimal public engagement to substantial participation from the public.
  3. Avoid conflict of interest in finance and governance by acknowledging the fault lines of any self-regulatory system and, in response, assuring maximum transparency in key areas of decision making.
  4. Focus strategically on emerging public needs, e.g., how review of internationalization of higher education serves the public interest.
  5. Strengthen public confidence in accreditation by additional responsiveness to the current accountability climate, especially expanding information to the public by, for example:
    • Calling on institutions and programs to provide direct evidence of performance and student learning outcomes and
    • Providing succinct, clear descriptions of the reasons associated with granting or denying accredited status.

Accrediting organizations have served the public interest well in the past, primarily by using an indirect strategy, that of providing the public with information as byproduct of serving colleges and universities. This strategy that has worked so well in the past is unlikely to be as effective in the future. Accrediting organizations need to monitor themselves through a checklist or audit of effective practices to enrich their service to the public interest in the future. They need a convergence of professional and public interest.