Accreditation in Jeopardy

August 6, 2010

Are we in independent higher education paying attention?  Connecting the dots?  Our system of quality assurance, which we call accreditation, is in jeopardy.

Every institution of higher education that participates in the awarding of federal financial aid money has to be accredited.  The accreditation is done by national or regional organizations that are approved by the U.S. Department of Education.  The accrediting organizations themselves are membership organizations through which the members accredit one another as abiding by appropriate standards.  In short, it is a system of professional self-regulation.

Last week, at hearings before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (or HELP, I kid you not), the Government Accounting Office released a devastating report entitled “For Profit Colleges: Undercover Testing Finds Colleges Encouraged Fraud and Engaged in Deceptive and Questionable Marketing Practices.”  The title is clear enough, but you can read all 30 pages yourself.

You can also read a vivid account of the HELP hearing and some pointed ruminations about the future of accreditation by Ben Miller of Education Sector here.  Reports Miller,”Toward the end of Wednesday’s hearing, [Sen. Tom] Harkin promised that
his committee would take a closer look at accreditation this fall. Certainly a
few more accreditation officials will get their round of tongue-lashing. But
eventually we have to make a decision about what to do about these agencies.
The current system and incentive structure around accreditation doesn’t work.
We expect too much, create no reasons for being a better actor, and shroud the
whole thing in secrecy.”

That is to say, the egregious misbehavior of the for-profit sector is adding to the doubts the Congress already has about accreditation.  Those doubts were aired during the era of the Spellings Commission.  Accreditation survived that round, but will it again?

I believe there are reasons to doubt that professional self-regulation will work with regard to for-profit institutions, but I believe it can and should work with regard to not-for-profit, independent higher education institutions.  Our behavior is and should be governed primarily by professional norms and standards, not the lure of profitability. But can we make the case that professional self-regulation works for independent, not-for-profit institutions?

Not convincingly, at present.  Note that bow shot from Sen. Harkin: “shroud the whole thing in secrecy.”  The only thing that is made public after a round of re-accreditation for a college or university is a simple statement that the institution is accredited, placed on probation, or not accredited.  No other information is provided unless the institution provides that information itself.  (Aside: Earlham makes public its self-study and the full report of the accreditation visiting team.)

We in independent higher education haven’t a leg to stand on if we insist on keeping accreditation shrouded in secrecy.  It may seem unfair that the egregious misbehavior of for-profit institutions could pull down the whole system of quality assurance we have been using for decades, but our own insistence on secrecy puts us in a very vulnerable place.

Accreditation needs to have stronger qualities of public accountability — public release of vital information — if it is to survive as our approach to quality assurance.  This past January I sketched one way to improve what we are doing, and make it more defensible when next we need HELP to endorse continuing professional self-regulation.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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