Policymakers | Trusteeship

Accreditation System Is Misguided Failure, Trustees Group Says

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  July 18, 2007 by Paul Basken

The federal government’s system for accrediting colleges is a misguided failure that should be largely replaced with a simpler method that relies on key institutional data about cost and quality, a trustees group is arguing.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative-leaning lobbying association led by Anne D. Neal, proposed in a report released on Tuesday that a process of “expedited accreditation” might begin to repair a system that the council regards as detracting from academic quality rather than improving it.

“Nothing in the accreditation process concretely measures student learning, instructional quality or academic standards,” the council said in the report. “If the accrediting process were applied to automobile inspection, cars would ‘pass’ as long as they had tires, doors and an engine–without anyone ever turning the key to see if the car actually operated.”

The report, “Why Accreditation Doesn’t Work and What Policy Makers Can Do About It,” is the latest in a series of attempts by both administration allies and critics to force changes in the federal government’s use of accrediting agencies as the means for determining which American colleges are eligible for government-guaranteed student loans.

The administration-appointed Commission on the Future of Higher Education, in its final report last September, proposed that accreditation agencies judge colleges on the basis of “performance outcomes,” such as graduation rates, rather than on the basis of “inputs or processes,” such as financial resources.

Ms. Neal, an outspoken advocate of such a new approach, was appointed by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to serve on the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. The committee, known as Naciqi, evaluates whether accrediting agencies should be recognized by the Education Department for the purpose of student-aid eligibility.

Naciqi, and Ms. Neal in particular, have been accused by some accrediting agencies of forcing the accreditors to begin abiding by outcomes-based methods of evaluating colleges without first waiting for such standards to be written into federal law or regulation.

Resistance to Outcomes-Based Methods

The Education Department has “gone beyond what’s reasonable” in demanding that accrediting agencies employ outcomes-based criteria in evaluating colleges, Susan F. Zlotlow, director of program consultation and accreditation at the American Psychological Association, told participants at a conference last month organized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

In large part, the report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reads as a chronicle of Ms. Neal’s discontent with Naciqi and the accrediting agencies that have appeared before it.

Such agencies include the American Bar Association, which provides accreditation to law schools and has been demanding that its member schools work to ensure racial diversity among students and faculty. Ms. Spellings, following Naciqi’s recommendation, last month approved only an 18-month renewal for the bar association’s accreditation authority, rather than the five-year standard, with a requirement that the bar association further clarify its diversity standard.

The Education Department needs only to ensure that colleges receiving federally guaranteed student aid aren’t misusing that money, and it already has systems in place to verify that, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni said in its report. The report cites the bar association’s diversity standard and other anecdotal cases as evidence that too many accreditors are imposing requirements on colleges beyond those necessary simply to ensure academic quality.

Such anecdotes, however, do not constitute empirical proof that support the report’s conclusion that the current system of accreditation is broken, said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

“This is not a careful, thoughtful analysis of what accreditation does,” Mr. Hartle said. “It’s just a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas and anecdotes.”

The report should also fuel concern among accrediting agencies that they might not receive fair treatment from Naciqi while Ms. Neal is a member, he said.

“It’s impossible to imagine her giving unbiased advice based on the evidence presented in those meetings,” Mr. Hartle said. “If the Department of Education wonders why colleges and universities are skeptical about their motives with respect to accreditation, they need look no further than this report.”

Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an umbrella group of accreditors, agreed that the report may make Ms. Neal’s future service on Naciqi untenable.

“How can someone with such strong views on accreditation function evenhandedly on a body that advises the secretary?” Ms. Eaton said. “If I were an accreditor coming up for review, I would say to myself, ‘Is it appropriate for this member of the committee to recuse herself?'”

“It’s the blanket negative characterization, without evidence,” that makes Ms. Neal’s report alarming, Ms. Eaton said.

At the same time, Ms. Neal is correct to provoke the discussion of whether the Education Department should be using accreditation, rather than some other method, to limit access to the government’s $83-billion student-aid program, Ms. Eaton said.

“With everything that’s happened in the last few years,” Ms. Eaton said, “a very serious discussion of the gatekeeping role, accreditation, and the federal government, and the relationship, is in order.”

Ms. Neal and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued an earlier report, in 2002, that also called for an end to the government’s use of the academic accreditation process to police the student-loan program.

The key addition in Tuesday’s report is the suggestion, as “a short-term alternative,” that colleges that are already accredited can renew that accreditation by submitting to Naciqi updated data on cost, quality and achievement, Ms. Neal said.

Criticisms of that recommendation that focus on her fitness to serve on Naciqi are a “predictable” attempt to avoid the issue, Ms. Neal said.

“Instead of meeting a good-faith effort to improve the education our students receive with a thoughtful discussion,” she said, “the establishment is denying everything and trying to shoot the messenger.”


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