Several education groups are pushing for a major reform in how the United States handles school accreditation, arguing the current system raises costs for both schools and students while allowing unaccountable officials undue influence.
Accreditation is essential for a college’s degrees to have value. In most states professional certification in various fields requires an accredited degree, while accreditation is also a requirement for federal student loans under the Higher Education Act. Accrediting is not carried out by the government directly, but rather by various regional and national accreditation commissions which have been approved for the task by the Department of Education.
With the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization from Congress for the first time since 2008, however, some groups want that situation to change, arguing that the close ties between accreditation and federal money ought to be broken, for the good of both students and schools.
Nominally, accreditation is supposed to guarantee the quality of a school’s academic instruction through rigorous peer review, but the panelists at a Heritage Foundation event Monday said in reality accreditation organizations routinely inject themselves into unrelated aspects of university governance, while their detachment from the government makes them fundamentally unaccountable.
As an example, they cited the University of Virginia, which received an accreditation warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges following the abortive ouster of college president Teresa Sullivan in 2012.
According to Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the meddling in the Sullivan case was “pure politics,” with an unaccountable group of biased academics “second-guessing” the decisions made by Virginia state government and the school’s board of trustees.
Other schools cited by Neal as victims of executive meddling were Thunderbird School of Management, which incurred accreditor displeasure over its decision to partner up with a for-profit education company, and Penn State, which was sanctioned over the Jerry Sandusky molestation scandal despite its detachment from actual academics.
“When we allow accreditors to start making management and financial decisions…we have opened a Pandora’s Box that will not end well,” Neal said at the Heritage event.
“The system that we have now puts in charge of the university…the accreditors, rather than the state government, or the governor, or the trustees. We have a group of people who don’t pay the bills, who end up having the power to make the decisions,” added Hank Brown, a former U.S. senator and president of the University of Colorado who now heads the Accreditation Reform Initiative.
Accreditating agencies also “ossify” the education system, said Brown, a Republican. Partly because of how many non-academic areas accrediting organizations investigate, the process of accreditation has become an expensive process that can cost schools millions, said Brown. That makes it costly and difficult for new kinds of schools to get started, which doesn’t just prevent schools from innovating, but also raises costs by providing less price pressure for established schools.
Meanwhile, Neal argued, accreditation itself is largely meaningless, as even atrocious schools in the U.S. can often obtain accreditation even if their students have poor graduation rates, high debt loads, and terrible job outcomes, as long as they jump through hoops established by the accreditation process.
“It dupes families and students. They think when they go to an accredited institution, that they’re going to an institution that is offering them value,” Neal said.
Instead of leaving accreditors as gatekeepers to education, the speakers suggested the government ought to decouple accreditation from student loans entirely, allowing students to take academic loans to any institution of their choosing. Instead of relying on accreditation to ensure quality, they said the government could require schools to honestly produce information such as their graduation rates, debt loads, and job outcomes for prospective students, and then make sure that data is easily available to the public.
By supplying prospective students with sufficient information, they said, students would be able to make the best decisions on their own and replace an opaque system with a transparent, market-driven one.