Accreditation Reform: Thanks for the Laugh

May 18, 2011

On Friday last week, Inside Higher Education ran a story about the appointment of a blue-ribbon committee by the American Council on Education to make recommendations about the reform of accreditation.  In appointment the committee , ACE Molly Broad said, gravely, “If we fail to step up to addressing reforms, then I think it is virtually inevitable that in the interests of the larger public, we will see greater use of [government] regulations and legislation to impose reforms. The risk there is greatest because of the push toward standardization that inevitably occurs when you write regulations.”

And here’s the first comment that was posted about the story:

“Thanks for the laugh:”  I think we’ve earned that.  Accreditation has been higher education’s approach to both consumer protection and quality assurance.  That is, it is our approach to protecting students (or their families) from being defrauded of a great deal of money by someone who promises them an education in return for payment but delivers nothing of value.  And it is our approach to seeing that colleges and universities are continually trying to be the best that they can be.

Accreditation is a professional process of peer review.  There isn’t some external agency that does the evaluation: we evaluate each other.  That’s the approach higher education uses for a great many excellence-seeking functions, like choosing which articles and books are worth publishing, or which members of a faculty should be appointed, re-appointed, tenured and promoted.  It’s a professional approach because we self-regulate.  To be a professional is to take on the responsibility to uphold high standards among a community of practitioners.  Doctors and lawyers use the same approach in upholding professional ethics.

But it’s easy to see why this approach might call out derision.  If each member of the profession doesn’t have a strong, internal commitment to upholding professional standards, such a peer review process could and will degrade into a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”  affair.  That’s clearly what KGotthardt thinks.

Indeed we have not been convincingly trustworthy in our use of professional peer review in accreditation.  Rarely does an institution fail accreditation.  And very little is disclosed when an institution is re-accredited, typically only the fact of re-accreditation, not any of the substance of the evaluation.  (I’ve long advocated that the full text of accreditation reports should be posted on-line, or lacking that, at least an audited summary of what a college or university knows about what and whether its students are learning.)

As a consequence, public officials have grown increasingly skeptical about accreditation as we have practiced it for many decades.  There have been regular threats that state or federal governments might step into the role of providing consumer protection or quality assurance. Of course most of the rest of the world puts governments in these roles, but then most of the rest of the world has many fewer independent colleges and universities.

Being accredited through this voluntary peer-review system opens the door to an institution’s students receiving federal financial aid.  As such Title IV funds have grown, scrutiny of our approach to accreditation has grown.  In recent years, the growth of for-profit colleges and universities have further stressed the system.  Why?  Because these for-profits largely organize accreditation among themselves copying the peer review approach of the not-for-profit and public institutions that have long dominated U.S. higher education, and this approach to mutual self-policing among for-profits has been shown to be very lax at consumer protection.  There have been a number of damaging revelations about for-profit institutions recruiting unprepared students, loading them up with federally-subsidized student loans, and then leaving the students without a degree and with a huge debt burden.

Traditional higher education (public and not-for-profit) would love to be able to say that they (unlike the for-profits) know how to do peer-review accreditation well, and that it is adequate to regulate the behavior of colleges and universities.  But accreditation is now held in such low regard in Washington and in state capitals that such a claim is a difficult sell.  Hence the new ACE-appointed committee.

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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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