The Forum | Trusteeship

Accreditors Begin to Feel the Pressure for Reform

April 1, 2015

Judith Eaton, of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, had an essay published yesterday in which she worried that the proposed Postsecondary Institutions Ratings System (PIRS) could force change on university accreditors. Accreditors, she assures us, are doing their job well. If we’re not careful, PIRS could muck that up. Her blindness to the issues plaguing university accreditation is actually somewhat impressive in its scope.

Contrast this with the understanding of the shortfalls of university accreditation displayed by Purdue president Mitch Daniels when he testified before the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training earlier this month. Daniels spoke of the pressing need to alleviate the burden of tuition and improve education.  He outlined several steps Purdue had taken towards this end:

At Purdue, prioritizing affordability started with a philosophical shift in how we budget. Instead of determining how much we want to spend and then asking parents to adjust their budgets, we now do the opposite. For the first time in nearly four decades we froze tuition, and then we did it again in the two subsequent years.

But accreditation, he said, was getting in the way of such positive change. “Purdue pays $150,000 a year in direct accreditation fees, but we pay much more in the significant staff and faculty hours that go into accreditation documentation.”

Instead of responding to legitimate concerns, such as those raised by Daniels, Eaton’s essay focused on what could be lost if the accreditation system were changed. It’s a short list. She fears, first, that an entity other than accreditors may become responsible for quality. Then she frets over the maintenance of accrediting agencies’ gatekeeping role. In some sense, Eaton is correct. The PIRS project has the potential to change this and more.

She is incorrect, however, in framing these changes as somehow opposed quality assurance—a claim she defends by pointing out that the accreditation system was at one point run by universities. As is obvious to anyone looking, this idyllic time of peer review by fellow academics no longer persists. And, in any case, the modern federal student loan system has rendered such a system largely unworkable.

Eaton’s pleading that this system be preserved comes much too late. It has already been replaced by today’s pseudo-governmental accrediting agencies which have the full power of government behind them, but little of the Congressional oversight that ought to go along with such power. Here’s Mitch Daniels on the scope of accreditors’ control:

The penalty for non-compliance, a loss of federal aid, would be so severe, that institutions have no choice but to go along with the process, no matter how burdensome or costly it becomes. Meanwhile, the barriers to entry created by this system make it next to impossible for new players in the higher education market to generate serious competition.

In comparing these two takes on accreditation—one from a current university president, and one from an industry-insider—I hope it is clear which better reflects reality. For good measure, consider these two questions that Eaton lists among her concerns:

  • To claim quality, will colleges and universities have to not only provide information about their accredited status, but also their ratings, whether “high performing,” “low performing” or “in the middle”?
  • Will institutions be pushed to diminish their investment in accreditation if, ultimately, it is the ratings that matter—in place of accreditation?


To the first, I can only answer: “I sure hope so!” The second merits only derision. The current accreditation system—led, as it is, by entrenched bureaucrats with an interest in maintaining the status quo—will not improve on its own. PIRS may or may not provide an ideal alternative, but the threat it poses to current accreditors is a reason to celebrate the initiative, not to scorn it. 


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