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Accreditation’s Future

CHANGE: THE MAGAZINE OF HIGHER LEARNING   |  February 1, 2015 by Judith S. Eaton and Anne Neal

In the point/counter point that follows, Anne Neal and Judith Eaton present different views on what accreditation is and should be. They are in agreement that accreditation’s central function is to serve as a “self-regulatory, collegial, formative review of institutions and programs,” as well as that this role could have greater value if it were more rigorous. They also agree that accreditation’s responsibility to act as a gate-keeper for access to federal financial aid is in tension with its quality-assurance function.

Eaton sees that tension as manageable, though, and concludes that “as long as gatekeeping involves judgements about academic quality, removing it from accreditors is not a good idea.” Neal, on the other hand, considers gatekeeping and “voluntary self-improvement” to be fundamentally incompatible activities. Their respective arguments follow.

A New Vision of Quality Assurance for Colleges

By Anne Neal

Observers agree: America’s system of higher education accreditation is dysfunctional and needs to be re-envisioned. High-ranking administrators at Princeton, Michigan, Stanford, and other schools have complained about the cost and intrusiveness of the current system. President Obama and politicians in both parties have called for the system to be re-thought.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the system’s most important champion, has herself argued that “we are beyond small fixes.” On this matter, she and I agree.

It’s time for policymakers to find simpler, better, and more transparent ways to ensure quality and protect the taxpayer dollar. The government’s industrial-era, regulatory approach to quality assurance and consumer protection—now dating back 50 years—is disconnected from the priorities and needs of institutions and families in the 21st century.

The problem lies in the accreditors’ gatekeeping role. These bodies must return to their primary responsibility as voluntary peer-review teams focused on educational quality. Otherwise, accreditors will contribute to the decline in academic standards, be barriers to innovation, and continue to drive skyrocketing college costs.

Let’s start with a little history. The first accrediting bodies were founded in the late nineteenth century to certify the educational quality of colleges. Teams of scholars evaluated the practices of peer institutions, made recommendations, and published lists of schools that met their standards. No schools wanted to endanger its accredited status unnecessarily, but every one of them retained the right to voluntarily dis-affiliate.

In theory, that system still exists. But starting in the 1950s, the federal government gave accreditors a mandate to determine which institutions were eligible for veterans’ education benefits. Later, in order to receive billions in Stafford loans, Pell grants, and other federal student aid, all colleges had to maintain accreditation. This is accreditors’ much-discussed “gatekeeping” role.

In relying on accreditors to oversee federal financial aid—the life-blood of American higher education—the federal government hamstrung it with an impossible dual mandate. As gatekeepers, accreditors are supposed to be enforcers, punishing universities that don’t adhere to their rules. At the same time, accreditors strive to retain their peer-review mission, which calls for collegiality. The result is a split personality—and not surprisingly, it’s unhealthy.

American students and parents are seeking reliable information and a more cost-effective high-quality college education. In its current form, accreditation cannot provide either—it fact, it undermines both.

Failing to Ensure Quality and to Protect the Public

Many things have happened since 1965, when the accreditation gatekeeping role was further formalized by Congress in the Higher Education Act. And one thing cannot be denied: Academic quality has not gone up. While accreditors have been in charge of ensuring educational quality, we have seen mounting evidence that they haven’t been doing their job. Our colleges and universities now spend close to twice the per-student average of any industrialized country, but with inferior results.

Our four-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time students hovers near 40 percent; the six-year first-time, full-time freshman national graduation is 59 percent. Even when transfers are counted in, the outcomes are unacceptable.

And the large federal surveys of adult literacy show that many of those students who graduate do not acquire the intellectual skills that could be reasonably expected of high school student. The majority cannot reliably compute the cost of food items or compare viewpoints in newspaper editorials.

Meanwhile, virtually all colleges and universities in the United States are accredited. How can this be?

In a paper entitled In Debt and In the Dark, economist Andrew Gillen examined what he calls “red-flag” institutions, 14 in all: colleges and universities at which the three-year student-loan default rate is higher than the graduation rate. At these schools, a student who takes out a loan to attend has a better chance of defaulting on the loan than of finishing her degree at that school.

Many of these institutions have truly abysmal graduation rates: 20 percent or even lower. Even allowing for transfers, that leaves a shocking number of student’s with a heavy debt burden and without the earning power that a degree provides.

All of the red-flag institutions are accredited. The federal government empowered accreditors to protect taxpayers from funding dysfunctional schools, but they have proven themselves largely incapable of pulling the plug. 

The failure to deny accreditation is, to a great degree, a byproduct of the serious conflict of interest that exists in the accreditation process. No one gets accredited without first paying dues to the accrediting association. On top of that is the cozy nature of the review bodies, which are largely made up of faculty and administrators who benefit from the system as well. Should we be surprised, then, that only the most egregious cases ever see meaningful sanctions—and generally on matters of finance or managements, not educational quality?

Misplaced Focus: Interfering in Mission and Governance

So while they are failing to ensure quality, what are accreditors doing? Eaton would like us to believe that they are advancing educational quality while deferring to “institutional autonomy.” Far from it. Mostly, they are intruding into university governance.

Examples of accreditors improperly inserting themselves into university governance are numerous. In Florida, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) twice warned Governor Rick Scott to restrict his involvement in the affairs of public universities. In on instance, he had publically suggested that the president of Florida A&M be suspended after the hazing death of a student, bringing down the accreditor’s warning. In another, SACS objected to the governor’s weighing in on the search for a new president of the University of Florida.

The Western Association of Colleges and Schools has intervened to prevent cost-cutting measures at the University of California and demanded reports on personnel selection at the University of Hawaii. Quite recently, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges revoked the accreditation of the City College of San Francisco on issues unrelated to academic quality—then reversed itself in the face of public backlash.

SACS has been even more intrusive. The accreditor placed the University of Virginia on warning for failing to comply with the accreditor’s policies regarding its decision to terminate its president.  The intrusion had nothing to do with educational quality and everything to do with power politics on campus. It amounted to nothing less than accreditors’ second-guessing the Commonwealth and state statutes, which give boards plenary authority to hire and fire.

When the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) objected to the SACS power grab, what happened? The federal Department of Education concluded that when it comes to standards outside the statute, such as governance, it had no power to review the accreditor’s actions at all. In other words, the Department and its advisory board, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI), are impotent to review, override, or disagree with accreditors when it comes to any standards not required by the Higher Education Act (HEA) that they apply to schools: “Nothing … shall be construed to prohibit or limit any accrediting agency … from adopting additional standards not provided for” (20 USC sec. 1099b[g]).

Accreditors have what amounts to a black-check authority under the HEA that empowers them to intrude in other autonomy of colleges and universities—autonomy, I might add, that has been central to the success of American higher education. In other words, accreditors may establish additional standards not mandated by the federal government and enforce them on member institutions. If accreditors were voluntary organizations, this would be fine. But accreditors’ power to make life-and-death decisions regarding institutional funding makes them, in effect, private regulatory bodies.

The blank-check authority should certainly give legislators pause. And it’s another reason that Congress should start all over when it comes to quality assurance. Accreditors make rules as they see fit for the colleges within their purviews, and the HEA forbids the Department of Education from reviewing those rules or granting appeals to colleges.

That’s why ACTA and others filed an amicus brief in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the HEA had established an unconstitutional delegation to private bodies composed of education industry stakeholders. Delegation of government authority to a private party with a conflict of interest is grossly at variance with legal precedent and jeopardized the political accountability that the Constitution is designed to safeguard. Simply put, statutory delegation is not valid if the private party acts with core governmental power. The courts—and Congress—must stop accreditors’ violation of the Constitution.

Accreditors’ increasingly heavy hands have frustrated campus leaders. Shirley Tilghman, then president of Princeton, gave a speech in which she charged accreditors with “inserting their own judgments into decisions of how best to achieve the enormously diverse academic missions of their membership.”

Accreditors’ interference, frustrating for elite institutions, can be terminal for less-privileged schools, which must move nimbly in the rapidly changing environment. Clara Lovett, former president of Northern Arizona University, recently offered the example of two adjacent, cash-strapped HBCUs. “With significant supports from local civic and business leaders,” Lovett said, “The governing boards of the two colleges negotiated the terms of a merger. The common goal was to create out of the two entities on viable comprehensive regional university.”

When the accreditors refused to approve the merger, it was a death blow for one, which will close in 2016. The other will survive for now, but it is considering selling assets, and its future is uncertain. Rather than ensuring educational quality, accreditation proved a barrier to innovative restructuring.

Lovett and 21 other national education leaders recently called on university trustees to push back when it comes to the interference of accrediting bodies. “The accreditation process has increasingly imposed immense financial burdens—in this time and labor—with little evidence of comparable return,” they wrote in Governance for a New Era. “It is time to consider cutting the link between accreditors and federal financial aid so that accreditors ay rightly return to their role as peer reviewers.”

There is also the matter of regional cartels.

Higher education is now a global business; state and national border have little bearing in a world connected by the Internet. And yet the accrediting apparatus is divided into regions, each of which is the single province of one accrediting association.

The regional structure makes no sense when it comes to institutional reach, but it does increase accreditors’ power and arrogance. In the current system, a university that objects to its treatment by its accreditor cannot seek recognition from one of the five other regional accrediting bodies—even though those organizations are all recognized by the Department of Education, and each one accredits hundreds of schools.

Institutions’ lack of options eliminates a natural check on accreditors’ ambitions and turns the system into a cartel. Former Dartmouth president Jim Yong Kim has called the regional system “increasingly unsuited to American higher education” and has accused it of “constrain[ing] innovation, creativity, and improvement.”

What Is To Be Done?

The bottom line is this: accreditation is a relic of a bygone age. While Eaton and other would have us believe that “accreditation has “improve[d] its capacity to address these issues” by “revising standards with an eye toward greater rigor and evidence of performance,” is anyone really fooled? These are predictable claims that arise whenever it’s time to reauthorize. Congress should not be fooled. To protect the federal investment and restore public confidence in higher education, our system of quality assurance must change.

Two policies should replace the accreditors’ gatekeeping mandate. First, institutions would be required to establish their financial stability (as is already current practice) and annually to post a statement on their websites, certified by an independent auditor, that they have sufficient resources to ensure that all enrolled students can be supported to the completion of their degrees. If funds are insufficient, the institution would need to post bonds or lose access to federal money. Such a requirement would protect students and the federal investment in higher education in a straightforward, cost-effective, and transparent way.

Second, schools would be required to post key information in a clear and readily accessible format on an annual basis, including cost of attendance, degree programs, graduation rates disaggregated by demographics, student-loan default rates, student outcomes as measured by licensure test results and nationally normed assessments of student learning gains, and job-placement rates.

Some of this data is already available on the Department of Education’s College Navigator site, and enhancing that site so that it contains the rest of this information would not be overly burdensome—and certainly far less burdensome than the current system. The Department of Education could require students to certify they have read the material when they complete their FAFSAs.

Title IV money would flow in much the way it does now, but consumers would be empowered with key information, and institutions would no longer be plagued by the burdens of the existing system. In an ideal world, Congress would establish a floor—perhaps based on student repayment rates of single-digit graduation rates—that would render schools whose metrics fall below the floor ineligible for Title IV funds.

Alternatively, the Department could offer an expedited process for currently accredited institutions that can show student learning gains. This approach would be analogous to the one used by companies that file for an IPO with the Securities and Exchange Commission: They make public key, audited information and then are free to conduct their business.

This would be an option only for low-risk institutions, allowing the Department and accrediting agencies to spend more time on bad actors. It would also allow strong institutions to engage in true peer review without the added complications of Title IV-eligibility enforcement.

To be clear: This reform would not require a new federal bureaucracy or insert the federal government into the workings of colleges and universities. It would not second-guess schools’ own judgments. Rather, it would empower students and their parents to make decisions without relying on an opaque accreditation process. Improvement would result as colleges responded to students’ seeking the best value for their education dollars.

Meanwhile, accreditors could return to their original function of voluntary self-improvement. Freed of the burden of serving as federal regulators, they could facilitate the sharing of best practices and develop “gold-standard” seals of approval similar to those produced by Good Housekeeping, Standard & Poor’s, LEED, and other rating agencies. Those certifications will mean much more than accredited status does in the current system.

Accreditation as a gatekeeper for federal student aid does damage every day. It drives up costs, and degrades quality, and  interferes with local governance. If we want to lower the cost of college and reduce federal intrusion in higher education, we should start by demanding an end to this system. We are done with “small fixes.”

Accreditation: What It Does and What It Should Do

By Judith S. Eaton

Accreditation is the primary means of assuring and improving academic quality in US higher education. Accreditors use a self-regulatory, collegial formative review of institutions and programs by academic peers to performs several vital roles. Historically, these have always included an affirmation of threshold quality and guidance about strengthening academic performance.

Then, some 60 years ago, accrediting organizations—as reliable authorities on academic quality—agreed to serve as gatekeepers for the federal government: Accredited status became a requirement for institutions or programs to be eligible for federal funds for student financial aid, research, or programs—today amounting to $175 billion per year. Over time, the federal government has developed a myriad of requirements, spelled out in law and regulation, that accreditors must meet to be approved to play this role (a process known as “recognition”).

The gatekeeping role and the relationship with the federal government now dominate the world of accreditation. Do we want accreditation to continue to perform the gatekeeper function? If accreditation does not, what entity would or should? How does the work of accreditation—including gatekeeping—affect colleges and universities through its impact on their governing boards? What is the effect of accreditation, including gatekeeping, on the key values that have been central to US higher education since its inception?

Gatekeeping by Accreditors

Accreditation, even with its federal role, remains owned, funded, and managed by colleges and universities. Presidents, chief academic officers, and faculty make the crucial decisions regarding accreditation standards, policies, and procedures; whether accredited status should be awarded or denied; and how their organizations operate. By doing quality review themselves rather than leaving it to government officials, college and university leaders believe that they have effectively substituted self-regulation for government regulation and protected themselves against political interference.

Support for maintaining the gatekeeping role has been a constant among the large majority of accrediting organizations, federally recognized or not. Not just academics but accreditors point out that reviewing and making judgments about the quality of higher education is a complex task that only academic professionals can do knowledgably. Supporters also value the collegial dimension of accreditation, with reviews that are essentially formative and focused on quality improvement.

Those who do not want accreditors to be gatekeepers are mostly to be found outside the accreditation and academic communities. They include observers of accreditation in the policy community, in think tanks, and in the press. These observers focus on what they consider to be defects of the peer-review process on which accreditation relies heavily.

They argue that the process is not adequately rigorous and that peers cannot avoid conflicts of interest because they are more invested in protecting each other than in offering the harsh judgments about academic quality that may sometimes be needed. They claim that peer review provides neither accountability nor consumer protection.

Critics also point to the extensive governmental authority given to accreditors and assert that these nongovernmental organizations are not adequately scrutinized or answerable to government or the public for exercising this authority. Finally, some observers see accreditation as a vehicle to ensure that colleges and universities promote certain types of political thought or social values. Speech codes are one example the critics point to, as is the documented preference in academe for liberal or progressive causes.

Is it best that accreditors continue to be gatekeepers? Accreditors want to play this role, and academics and the federal government want them to. The issue is not so much whether accreditation continues to do gatekeeping, at least in the near term, but about the growing impact of the gatekeeping role on accreditors’ practices and values. As the federal government’s regulation of accreditation expands, its emphasis on compliance grows, and its engagement in the academic decision making of colleges and universities increases, how can the collegial, peer-driven, and self-regulatory core of accreditation remain robust and intact?

Proponents of gatekeeping want these features of accreditation to be sustained, along with gatekeeping. Critics of accreditors as gatekeepers see these features as incompatible. For both parties, the debate about accreditation’s gatekeeping role comes down to three questions: Can self-regulation and government regulation not only co-exist but be productive? Can effective peer review co-exist with ever-expanding government review? Can the collegial approach at the heart of accreditation be reconciled with government demands that accreditation function primarily as a form of compliance?

Gatekeeping by Others

Some of accreditation’s critics recommend that other parties take on the gatekeeping role. When asked who those other might be, they typically suggest the federal government—but some have nominated the state or yet-to-be created private sector organizations outside of higher education.

Recommendations that gatekeeping be done by others is generally driven by a desire that higher education provide more frequent, useful, and concrete evidence of effective performance, be more transparent, and offer greater consumer protection. This means more emphasis on measurable performance indicators such as graduation rates, employment, and evidence of student learning.

The critics also recommend triggers or levels of college and university performance that, if not met, would result in a denial of federal funds—as well as more energetic monitoring of institutions to assure compliance with laws and regulations governing the use of student financial aid and other federal money. Finally, they think that more and better information about college performance should be provided to the public.

Those who think that it is a bad idea for others to take on gatekeeping are mainly to be found in the academic and accreditation communities. Some accreditation leaders are convinced that accreditation itself would go by the wayside if they lost the gatekeeping function—that institutions and programs would abandon accreditation over time.

Many colleges and university leaders do not want to see other as gatekeepers, even as accreditors are forced to play a larger and larger compliance role, are progressively more controlled by the federal government, and increasingly serve as conduits for greater government oversight of colleges and universities. These leaders believe that even if accreditors are playing their role in a way that the leaders do not like, accreditors are preferable to other possible gatekeepers.

As long as gatekeeping involves judgments about academic quality, removing it from accreditors is not a good idea. However, if gatekeeping increasingly shifts from academic considerations to a compliance review with a small set of performance indicators established by the federal government and having little to do with academic quality (such as those suggested by the proposed College Ratings System), it may no longer matter who does the gatekeeping. The gatekeeping role will have been fundamentally transformed.

Does Accreditation Challenge Governing Boards?

Accreditors have always challenged governing boards—there is a structural tension built into the relationship between the two. The key question is whether accreditation is done in a way that supports institutional autonomy and enhances the role of governing boards or if it undermines the responsible independence of institutions and the leadership roles of boards of trustees.

Throughout the history of accreditation, the tension has been manageable, even productive. Typically, accreditation both builds upon and reinforces institutional autonomy through attention to institutional mission, the driving force in the evaluation of colleges and universities. At the same time, accreditation standards are applied across all institutions, whatever the mission, and intended or not, drive sameness in institutional direction and performance.  

Accreditors have standards about fiduciary responsibility and stewardship that is both financial and academic, about the relationship between boards and institutional executives that hold the latter accountable but do not result in micromanagement by boards, and about the commitment to shared governance. All of this has historically been compatible with the values that boards themselves and the governing-board literature espouse.

However, both the climate in which governing boards currently operate and the practices of accreditation have changed, especially over the past ten years. These changes have sometimes put accreditors and governing boards at odds with each other. Some controversial examples include the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors’ efforts in 2012 to remove its president, as well as the actions of the Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees in relation to the Sandusky case.

Perhaps of greatest significance is the fact that accreditors are playing a larger role in major business decisions of colleges and universities, making judgments that can trigger consternation from governing boards. The institutional accreditor for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture has a standard that requires the school to become legally separate from its parent foundation or lose its accreditation in several years. To date, the board of the foundation has voted to give up accreditation.

Other examples include, in 2013, the Thunderbird School of Global Management’s proposed joint venture with Laureate Education Inc., which did not receive approval from its institutional accreditor. Tiffin University in Ohio established a partnership with Ivy Bridge College that was not approved by its accreditor. Who is ultimately responsible here, governing boards or the accreditors?

Accreditation’s Impact on the Key Values of Higher Education

Accreditation is built upon four key values of higher education: the responsibility of academic peers to determine quality; the commitment to mission as essential to maintaining the diversity of higher education; institutional autonomy as a necessary foundation for academic leadership of colleges and universities; and academic freedom as central to effective teaching, learning, and research.

Conditions that have supported these values have deteriorated considerably in the last several years. The use of peer review is routinely criticized. Institutional mission and autonomy are undermined by federal and other efforts to measure colleges and universities with the same yardstick (e.g. graduation and transfer rates, affordability, access), independent of the institutional differences captured by mission. The current debate about academic freedom, although largely independent of accreditation, has raised questions about the role of accreditation in supporting and sustaining this vital value.

Accreditation itself has not produced this climate change. Current conditions are due to a confluence of forces that include public distrust of social institutions and authority in general. Nonetheless, accreditors, working with institutions, need to push back.  

The need to resist the shift from depending on academics to judge quality to asking non-academics to play this key role. This can be done, in part, by a focus on greater rigor in peer review. And accreditors and academics need to ensure that ratings systems, rankings, dashboards, and scorecards are sensitive to institutional mission. Everyone in the academic community needs to support institutional autonomy as the foundation for strong academic leadership. Finally, there is a growing need for accreditors to further engage in the national discussion of academic freedom.

When taking on the gatekeeping role, accreditors agreed to carry out collegial review of colleges and universities and inform government of the results, not to become compliance officers for federal laws and regulations or to surrender fundamental practices such as peer review fundamental responsibilities such as judging academic quality. If gatekeeping is reduced to a compliance checklist largely irrelevant to academic quality but forcing accreditors to abandon their collegiality, commitment to peer review, and the formative evaluation that is essential to quality improvement, gatekeeping is not worth retaining.

Finally, accreditors need to push back against any actions that interfere with their commitment to the key values of peer review, institutional mission, institutional autonomy, and academic freedom. Boards of visitors, accreditors, and campus leaders have more that brings them together than divides them when it comes to the values that are central to higher education.

Judith Eaton ( is president of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). She has also served as chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and as president of the Council for Aid to Education, Community College of Philadelphia, and the Community College of Southern Nevada. Anne Neal ( co-founded the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence, academic freedom, and accountability in American higher education. She has been president since 2003. She has authored or co-authored numerous studies on historical illiteracy, accreditation, governance, intellectual pluralism, and cost.



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