Here We Go Again... Sin, Salvation and Accreditation

July 20, 2007

“If the accrediting process were applied to automobile inspection, cars would ‘pass’ as long as they had tires, doors, and an engine – without anyone ever turning the key to see if the car actually operated”

(Why Accreditation Doesn’t Work and What Policymakers Can Do About It, p. 6).

The attacks on accreditation keep coming. This time, the confrontation is from a familiar critic – the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a Washington DC-based nonprofit organization. ACTA has reprised its 2002 commentary on primarily regional accreditation (Can College Accreditation Live Up to Its Promise?) and expanded its attention as well as its criticisms to encompass the entire accreditation enterprise.  In its just-published Why Accreditation Doesn’t Work and What Policymakers Can Do About It, ACTA not only reaffirms that the answer to the 2002 question is “no,” but goes on to say that the accreditation situation has only worsened in the past five years.

Once again, ACTA is sounding familiar themes, offering only negatives about accreditation and refusing to even consider any value and benefit that the 100-year-old enterprise has provided to higher education and society. Once again, the agenda is to discredit accreditation, seeking to eliminate its central federal policy role and tailoring ACTA research and analysis to serve this goal.

Seven Sins and Salvation

Why Accreditation Doesn’t Work offers breathtaking generalizations about accreditation, buttressed only by a series of anecdotes and offering little or no evidence for its broad condemnation of the enterprise. Accreditation, the paper says, is suffering from seven deadly sins: It does nothing to assure quality; it examines inputs and not the outputs in which the public is interested; it undermines institutional autonomy and diversity; it contributes to rising college costs; it is an unaccountable, federally mandated monopoly; it is largely a secret process and it is a “conflicted, closed and clubby system.” In short, accreditation is “bad education policy” and fails to assure quality.

To save students and the public from the seven sins of accreditation, the paper calls on policymakers to consider and perhaps enact eight suggestions. Interestingly, the proposed salvation program does not include eliminating accreditation, just removing it from the federal sphere – the link between accreditation and federal student aid needs to be broken such that accreditation is no longer “federally mandated.”  In addition to breaking this link, accrediting organizations should be made to prove their worth, the accreditation monopoly should be broken, ways to assure student achievement need to be developed, the public needs to be told “what it deserves to know” about institutional performance, the homogenization of higher education through accreditation needs to be stopped, consumer-friendly expedited alternatives for re-accreditation should be developed by the federal government and ways need to be found to reduce the cost of higher education. 

Salvation as described in the paper involves an enlarged federal role in assuring quality in higher education. Congress is called on to mandate institutions to provide additional information on academic quality and student achievement as an alternative to the current accreditation system. This is in addition to relying on current  U.S. Department of Education (USDE) annual audits and the obligation of institutions to be in good standing with USDE to participate in Title IV and other federal programs.  There is also a comfort level with implementation of the recommendations on accreditation of the 2005-2006 Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education as these relate to informing the public about student achievement. 

Salvation also involves considerable confidence in increasing the influence of the market on accreditation, calling for an end to the regional structure of institutional accreditation for the nonprofit sector and using the re-accreditation alternative mentioned above as means to increase competition, as well as suggesting that there is benefit to using a bidding system for accreditation. Colleges and universities would establish a bidding ritual for accreditation services, similar to how they decide what individuals or companies will provide other services such as auditing, legal services or architectural services.

Is There Really Sin and Do We Need Salvation?

As with the 2002 publication, Why Accreditation Doesn’t Work offers no mention of the significant progress that accreditation has made in addressing students learning outcomes, especially during the past ten years.  There is no consideration of the extensive attention that accreditation has already given to public accountability. There is no acknowledgment of the history of the enormous resilience and success of U.S. higher education that, at least in some measure, is tied to accreditation, long acknowledged as the primary means used by colleges and universities to assure and improve quality. There is no nod to the value of accreditation or consideration of how deeply embedded it is in the society, involving a complex set of relationships and dependencies with not only the federal government, but also state governments, corporations, foundations and other nonprofit organizations and the general public. There is little acknowledgment that accreditation, as with any complex and longstanding enterprise, has its strengths as well as its limitations and that, just perhaps, accreditation as we know it does contribute to the public good.

This most recent policy paper and its condemnation of accreditation should be particularly worrisome to the 60 or so accrediting organizations that are currently scrutinized by the federal government for quality or “federally recognized.” Its author, ACTA President Anne D. Neal, has recently been appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) by the Secretary of Education. This body advises the Secretary about whether accreditors meet federal standards and thus whether the institutions and programs that are accredited will be eligible for federal funds. Can accreditors going before NACIQI expect evenhanded consideration of their efforts when at least one member of this important body has already publicly declared that accreditation is “ineffective” and “does nothing to ensure educational quality”?

These concerns notwithstanding, it should not be lost on the accreditation community that the ACTA paper does raise questions and issues that are important to the enterprise. Some of these topics have been raised by the higher education and accreditation communities themselves. These include whether the gatekeeping role that accreditation was asked to take on by the federal government in 1952 continues to make sense for all parties involved – the government, higher education and accreditation. There is discussion of the importance of enhanced rigor in higher education, especially through additional attention to student achievement. The paper urges that the diversity of higher education institutions be maintained.  It addresses the role of the market and increased competition as perhaps strengthening accreditation practice. It speaks to benefit that could accrue to accreditation through providing more sustained and reliable information to the public about quality.

Whatever discomfort advocates of accreditation and accrediting organizations themselves may have with the unsubstantiated and broad condemnation and with an analysis so one-sided that it cannot find anything positive about the enterprise, the ACTA paper does provide a service. Of the issues that the paper raises, two are fundamental to the future of accreditation and how it operates. Accreditation needs a frank reappraisal of its relationship to the federal government and the gatekeeping function.  How, going forward, should this be configured? Can the current gatekeeping arrangement continue to be effective and, if so, how? Would the end of gatekeeping mean the end of accreditation as some fear?  Accreditors need to carefully consider the importance of greater public accountability to the future credibility of accreditation. Specifically, how, going forward, will accreditation intensify and accelerate its responsiveness to the insistent calls for greater accountability, especially as this relates to student achievement and public information?  There is much work to be done.