It's Time to Speak Out: Accreditation, Its Critics and Its Future

June 27, 2013

Judith S. Eaton

For the past dozen years, accreditation has been routinely criticized for a set of alleged failings. These familiar criticisms were repeated, once again, at the House of Representatives hearing on accreditation held on June 13, 2013. Yet, a number of these criticisms are highly questionable, based on inadequate evidence or positing causal relationships where none exist. Some of the criticisms are caught in a time warp.

The accreditation community sometimes responds directly to these criticisms. More often, whether as a matter of academic courtesy or a preference to avoid open conflict, the focus is on the strengths and value of accreditation, many of which have been well-documented over the years. What if we move beyond these parallel conversations and spend some time addressing these questionable claims directly?

Accreditation has changed and is continuing to change. It will and must. Criticisms of accreditation, especially those that can move public policy, should be timely, evidence-based and well-founded.

The Criticisms and Responses

Criticism 1. Accreditation is responsible for a decline in higher education performance and effectiveness as documented by low graduation rates, high student loan default rates, declining academic standards and limited student achievement.

Response 1.

This criticism is built on the myth that accreditation controls institutional and student performance. This would mean that if accreditation were responsible for the asserted decline in performance and effectiveness at some institutions, then accreditation would also be responsible for gains, e.g., high graduation rates and low default rates, rising academic standards and improvements in student achievement at others. Rarely is this last point noted. In reality, accreditation controls neither.

The talking point is: Accreditation is a confidence builder, a reliable authority on the soundness of colleges and universities. This is different from certifying every action of an extraordinarily complex institution or every individual student’s performance.

Criticism 2. Accreditation is too costly and is responsible for rising college costs.

Response 2.

There are limited actual data on cost. Moreover, we do not have a common definition of “cost of accreditation.” Most institutions do not track direct and indirect costs of accreditation. When asked, they can only estimate costs. Other research has yet to overcome this difficulty.

Without actual specific and aggregate institutional data, we cannot affirm that accreditation is too costly or that it plays a role in rising college costs. And, for those individual institutions that have tracked actual costs, how do we judge “too costly”? Compared to what? If the cost of an accreditation review (which is what is usually reported) is amortized over the three or five or ten years of accredited status, is this “too costly”?

The talking point is: There is no reliable evidence to date that accreditation is too costly or that the cost of accreditation is connected to the rising cost of higher education.

Criticism 3. Accreditation is a barrier and fails to embrace innovation.

Response 3.

Reflect on the enormous growth in the numbers and types of institutions and students in higher education. Recall the establishment of community colleges in the 1960s? The advent of distance learning in the 1980s and 1990s? The strong growth of the for-profit sector in the 2000s? All were considered innovation. All required that accreditation develop and apply effective practices to review quality. Accreditation responded. Why expect that accreditation will fail to address current innovation?

The talking point is: Accreditation has responded in a timely and effective way to the major changes and innovation in higher education and will continue to do so.

Criticism 4. Accreditation is “secretive.”

Response 4.

Accreditors are rapidly making public significant amounts of accreditation material (self-studies, team report, action letters, reasons for accreditation decisions). Information about accreditation made available by institutions is rapidly expanding as well. The thousands of public institutions, by law, cannot be “secretive.” A significant number of private institutions choose not to be “secretive” and publish, e.g., accreditation self-studies and team reports.

The talking point is: All the evidence about the transparency of accreditation points to a major expansion of the information available to the public about institutional performance, accredited status and the results of accreditation reviews.

Criticism 5. Accreditation is burdensome and intrusive.

Response 5.

Accreditation needs to be burdensome and intrusive some of the time. The pivotal question is whether the burden and intrusion are warranted. We want accreditation to be demanding and look intensively and extensively at substandard institutions. They must either improve or lose their accreditation.

For other institutions, accreditation makes significant demands and involves considerable time and effort. However, CHEA has routinely interviewed presidents of all types of institutions for a number of years. Many – not all – presidents say that accreditation is sometimes a burden and intrusive but, for the most part, the gain from accreditation is worth it, especially with regard to quality improvement.

The talking point is: “Burden and intrusiveness” is appropriate for substandard institutions. For other institutions, such features of reviews, while not sought after, are justified by the gain.

Criticism 6. Accreditation operates with two significant conflicts of interest. First, institutions review other institutions, thereby encouraging a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” approach. Second, institutions finance the accreditors that are reviewing them.

Response 6.

“Conflict of interest” is really a pejorative way of describing the peer review that is at the heart of accreditation, academics reviewing academics or professionals reviewing professionals. As external reviews of accreditation confirm, peer review is accompanied by strong and effective requirements for accreditors and institutions to absent themselves from reviews and decisions where conflicts may occur. In addition, the ongoing intense competition among higher education institutions works to discourage mutual back-scratching behavior.

If conflict of interest allegations are used to discourage or eliminate peer review, what type of review will replace this? As with medicine and other fields, who is better qualified to examine academic programs and services than professionals in these academic areas?

Yes, accreditation can look at alternative means to eliminate the connection between positive accreditation decisions and the financing of accrediting organizations. But where is the evidence that substandard or other institutions receive or maintain accreditation because of the revenue they provide?

The talking point is: The potential for conflict of interest exists within accreditation, as in many fields. However, sufficient safeguards to contain conflict of interest have been effective over the years. The potential dangers are outweighed by the benefits of peer review and the absence of evidence that accreditors award accredited status to obtain additional revenue.

The Future of Accreditation

While it is important to examine such criticisms, especially those for which adequate evidence is not available, we need to go beyond this discussion to the future of accreditation.

There is a sobering and serious matter before the accreditation and academic communities. Congress, many policy and opinion leaders and the public as represented through the press have clearly and forcefully indicated their lack of satisfaction with traditional accreditation and the role that it plays.

The older conversation about whether accreditation is effective in doing what it has always done has morphed. The new conversation is about a new and different role. Accreditation is now called upon to expand its scrutiny to include educational offerings from non-institutional providers: massive open online courses, badges, coursework from private providers, competency-based education and assessment of prior learning – in the name of access and affordability. Accreditation is now called upon to establish minimal requirements for student achievement, going beyond aspirational standards that provide for individual institutions, based on mission, to establish expectations of student learning – in the name of enhancing completion. Accreditation is now called upon to maximize transparency of its entire operation, all decisions and all documents – in the name of student protection and information to the public.

This new conversation has the potential to upend accreditation as we know it, challenging peer review, the centrality of mission and the traditional structure of higher education that aggregates, under the leadership of academic faculty, the setting of academic standards, the development of curriculum, teaching and learning and the credentialing of students.

While it is clear that accreditation will not remain the same, its future path is uncertain. What role does accreditation want to play? What role can it play?