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Why accreditation is such a mess

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Everyone knows that institutions of higher education need to be accredited. Accreditation serves both students and the public good by providing the first indicator of a legitimate institution of higher education. But recent investigations of for-profit colleges and universities have revealed a problem in the accreditation process. Far from being an ironclad guarantee of higher education excellence, accreditation represents a binary evaluation of whether or not an institution satisfies the standards of an independent, non-governmental agency. Moreover, the agency is a membership club, a fraternity where obscure rules and rituals define the process. With the stakes being incredibly high—success equals access to federal financial aid programs—it is no wonder that accreditation has been accused of failing to protect students from the excesses of the for-profit sector.

We need, however, to look to the history of accreditation in the United States to provide some insight into current events.

From peer review to agency gatekeepers

The basic outlines of accreditation were established in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the definition of a university was not yet settled. Accreditation provided clarity on what constituted higher education at the time by having existing institutions identify and endorse their peers. In other words, college was defined by other colleges. The standards focused on admission requirements, faculty qualifications, academic resources, and financial stability. The purpose was to make sure a degree at one institution would be recognized by another institution, especially for the purposes of graduate admission.

Fast forward to World War II. The new GI Bill required the federal government to identify the institutions that veterans could spend their tuition benefits on. Lacking any mechanism to do it themselves, the job was given to the states. It became a confusing disarray, with fly-by-night operators popping up to gain access to the financial windfall, and then disappearing with the profits. So the federal government tried again. In the 1950s, they decided to replace the states’ role in the original GI Bill with the accreditation agencies that had been around since the turn of the century. At the time, though, not all institutions were eligible for accreditation from existing agencies. So the federal government set up standards for recognizing accreditation agencies for the purposes of accessing aid. A set of new agencies emerged in compliance with the new rules. Accreditation brought order to the system. The federal government endorsed accreditation agencies, and the agencies endorsed higher education institutions. An innovative path to financial aid was forged.

Since the partnership between the federal government and accreditation agencies seemed to work for veterans aid, the same solution was used in the 1960s and 70s for determining eligibility for the student loan and grant programs under the Higher Education Act. Almost immediately, however, problems emerged. A system designed to collegially identify similar institutions to facilitate degree recognition and student transfer was being asked to serve in an increasingly regulatory role. Rather than assisting colleges in their natural drive for self-improvement, accreditation agencies now were expected to serve as gatekeepers for financial aid and safeguard the investment of the American taxpayer. The problems with this arrangement weren’t as immediately obvious as the states’ failures in oversight after World War II, but these accreditation agencies were equally unsuited to serve as the government’s eyes and ears for financial aid eligibility.

With no other option—creating a whole new bureaucracy to replace accreditation was never seriously considered—the federal government used its power to recognize agencies as a lever for change. Agencies were pushed to provide more transparency in their operation. They were encouraged to move away from input measures like numbers of books in the library and square feet of classroom space, to output measures that focused on the student experience. They were asked to document their procedures and provide methods for appeal of negative decisions. When technology and online learning came to the forefront, accreditation was expected to adapt its campus-based procedures to the virtual environment.

The fundamental problem remains

But the underlying architecture remained unchanged. Accreditation is still fundamentally a private non-governmental body that sets its own standards and membership rules. Its regulatory role sits uncomfortably on top of an academically oriented culture that values collegial consultation over enforcement of external rules.

The for-profit scandals of recent years demonstrate the problem. The recent collapse of Corinthian Colleges, for example, highlights the challenges inherent in the independence of accreditation. As lawsuits and investigations swirled around the school, and access to financial aid was curtailed by the federal government, Corinthian remained in good standing with its accreditation agency up until the moment it declared bankruptcy. How was this possible? The accrediting agency was applying its own standards, none of which were impacted by the problems that state and federal oversight identified. More broadly, of the dozens of problematic recruiting behaviors and poor graduation rates identified by a Senate committee investigating the for-profit education industry, few of these issues had previously been noticed or publicly revealed in any accreditation review process. And no for-profit institution lost its accreditation after the Senate findings were published.

Future directions

The effectiveness of accreditation as a regulator is now under review. As a result, serious proposals have been put on the table to bypass accreditation and develop alternative procedures for access to federal student aid. The chummy nature of accreditation, in which currently accredited institutions get to sit in judgment of new institutions, is under attack. The secretive and opaque processes of institutional evaluation are viewed with suspicion. Policymakers and entrepreneurs alike are questioning the legitimacy of accreditation as a gatekeeper in higher education.

The bottom line is that accreditation is not set up to do the job it is being asked to do. But that is a problem as much with the expectations of government as it is with the capability of the accreditation agencies. Calls for reform and restructuring of accreditation have been regularly repeated over the last forty years. But the agencies have always been able to mollify their critics by demonstrating responsiveness to concerns and arguing for the value of their model of institutional assessment. This time seems different.

Accreditation could go in one of several directions. Agencies could continue their traditional role as gatekeepers for financial aid, but act much more explicitly as an arm of the government. Collegial reviews would get replaced with compliance reports. Another path would involve accreditation opening up its eligibility requirements to include new and innovative educational providers alongside the more familiar colleges and universities. This would require the agencies to adopt a competency-based approach, for example, that focuses on whether learning occurs rather than where and how it occurs. A third option would be simply to reject the government’s attempts to change their purpose, and relinquish their role as financial aid gatekeepers. The government, then, would need to either develop a new oversight bureaucracy for the task, or find some private sector entity other than the accreditation agencies to do it.

Each one of these options represents a dramatic shift in the role of accreditation in higher education. Quite simply, the partnership between the agencies and the federal government, formed out of convenience in the 1950s, is breaking down. It’s not that accreditation failed at its job, but rather the job itself has changed to something accreditation was never designed to do. A new model needs to emerge to clean up the mess.

Kevin Kinser is an associate professor of educational administration and policy studies in the School of Education at University at Albany, State University of New York.

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