The accreditation system is broken, and its inequities are glaring.
If nothing else, that was the lesson to be learned late in June at the meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).
The system of accreditation—which couples peer review and enforcement—simply cannot function as a gatekeeper of federal funds. The accreditation regime is a jumbled set of standards that are inconsistent and unfairly applied. National accreditors and accreditors of for-profit schools are required to set bright-line retention, graduation, and placement rates; and they are required to show gainful employment. On the other hand, regional accreditors—which oversee the vast number of accredited schools—have no such bright-lines. No graduation rate is too low. The system chugs along simply by self-referential affirmations of quality. At the same time, these agencies benefit from the immense protection that their regional monopoly provides. They are indeed, as some have claimed, “too big to fail” since termination of a regional accreditor would mean most accredited schools would have nowhere else to go—unless federal law is changed.
In a split vote, NACIQI endorsed the U.S. Department of Education recommendation to terminate, as a gatekeeper for Title IV funds, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS), the largest national accreditor, one which oversees many for-profit colleges. ACTA’s Anne Neal, a member of the Committee, opposed the decision to terminate, not because ACICS was a reliable guarantor of educational quality—it wasn’t—but because the procedure applied was both unfair and inconsistent. Staff reviews could not provide public confidence that different accreditors were being treated fairly, objectively, and consistently across educational sectors.
The problems of accreditation are not just of one accreditor or of one sector. The problems are inherent to the very structure of accreditation: Quality improvement and quality assurance do not go together. Peer review is collegial and focused on improvement; quality assurance is often punitive. Add to this the power that accreditors hold as gatekeepers and you get the anticompetitive “guild-like” standards that characterize the American Bar Association and the American Psychological Association: standards that limit the use, for example, of online education (generally cheaper) and nontenured faculty (generally cheaper)—inputs that have no clear tie to educational quality but a very clear tie to rising costs.
As Congress prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the answer is clear: We need to delink accreditation as a gatekeeper and enforcer and return it to its original and critical role as peer reviewer. Consumers can be better protected through transparent reporting of metrics, proof of financial stability, and clear evidence that students are learning. There are cheaper, more transparent, and better ways to ensure taxpayer dollars go to schools with baseline quality. ACTA has outlined them. These reforms are desperately needed.