The college accreditation system is supposed to uphold academic quality and integrity. Many Americans assume that if a college or university is accredited, that is equivalent to the Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) seal on appliances – that it has been tested and found to be of good quality. Accreditation is a reliable stamp of approval, isn’t it?
A college or university can be accredited and yet have pathetically weak academic standards that allow students to graduate even though they have learned little or nothing. The book Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that high percentages of college graduates had hardly advanced at all in basic knowledge and skills over their four or more years in school.
That’s strong evidence that accreditation does not, in fact, assure academic quality. Even though their schools are accredited, many students find it easy to coast through to their degrees without learning much, aided by grade inflation and feeble curricular requirements.
The federal government relies on accreditation to determine whether a school is eligible for governmental financial aid on the theory that accreditation filters out the schools where the money would be wasted on fraudulent degrees. Sadly, that hasn’t worked out.
Great numbers of students have paid for essentially worthless college degrees with federal grants and loans. And because the accreditation system is costly – schools must devote a lot of time to preparing the documents demanded by accreditation agencies – the government’s policy increases the cost of education for little or no gain.
Accreditation began as a voluntary process late in the 19th century, as colleges in the different regions of the nation formed associations for the purpose of differentiating actual colleges from trade schools that called themselves “colleges.” Schools could become members of one of these associations by demonstrating that they met various criteria, such as having a library and a faculty with mostly full-time instructors. Few people paid much attention to accreditation when it was just a voluntary system to help consumers distinguish between types of academic institutions.
That changed once the federal government – foolishly and unconstitutionally – got into the business of helping to fund higher education. Political leaders did not want to have money that was supposed to help students learn valuable skills and knowledge squandered on “degree mills” that offered academic credentials but required little or no work on the part of the students.
The solution to that problem, politicians thought, was to allow federal student aid money to go only to accredited colleges and universities. Back in 1952, when that decision was made, accreditation was a good proxy for academic quality. Restricting eligibility for federal money just to accredited schools blocked students from buying empty credentials at phony schools. It seemed reasonable.
What the politicians did not foresee, however, was that over time accredited colleges, eager to pull in as many students with their federal aid money as possible, would relax their academic standards – and the accreditors would do nothing to stop it.
Why? It is because accreditation has always been based on inputs rather than results. It is not hard to determine whether a school has the facilities and procedures that make it look like a “real college” but extremely difficult to discern whether students are actually learning anything. Does the school have a proper number of faculty members with terminal degrees in their field? That can be measured. But do students in English classes learn how to write a coherent sentence? That is hard to determine and is not something that the accrediting associations try to evaluate.
So, the accreditation system fails to ensure academic quality. College officials who cared more about maximizing the number of enrolled students than in maintaining intellectual standards long ago discovered that they could make that trade without any trouble from their accrediting associations.
Moreover, accreditation acts as a barrier to entry to new and innovative educational institutions. As Richard Vedder explains in this Minding the Campus essay, “The cost of becoming accredited initially is high, and existing colleges are loath to have new competition in this era of falling enrollments.” Our reliance upon accreditation as a guarantee of academic quality has become badly misplaced, and it is counter-productive in that it gets in the way of the robust competition that our educational system needs.
Wait – it gets worse. Like so much of the education establishment, the accrediting associations have become suffused with enthusiasm for “diversity.” Professor Tony Fels of the University of San Francisco made that point about his institution’s accreditor, the Western Association of Colleges and Schools in this Martin Center article. He wrote, “College administrators and accreditation agencies, no less than groups of faculty members, are sometimes so politicized that fairness and integrity get trampled.” Rather than upholding academic integrity, the accreditation system now undermines it by pushing the diversity agenda.
College accreditation, conscripted to do a job it was never meant to do, has proven a failure. But what should we do?
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) advocates in this policy paper that we break the link between accreditation and eligibility for federal aid money. Students who are eligible for aid would be allowed to spend it at any institution, accredited or not. But what about the problem of degree mills?
That, ACTA argues is a de minimis problem since few students want to waste any of their own time and money on fake degrees, especially since the Internet makes it easy for employers to sniff out phony degrees. But there still might be some instances of fraud, and if so, ACTA argues, “it would be better to ban them from receiving federal funds than to compel all to participate in an accreditation system that has more cost than benefit.”
There is great merit in that idea. The government should no longer say that only accredited schools may receive federal student aid money. Let students go wherever they believe they will get the most educational benefit. To deal with the possibility of fraud, go after any school suspected of it. If the case is proved, ban that school from receiving any student aid money for, say, ten years.
If we cut the link between accreditation and eligibility for federal money, accreditation would once again become truly voluntary. It would have to survive the test of the marketplace as schools were free to decide whether the benefits of accreditation were worth the costs. It would be fascinating to see how many college presidents would say to their accreditation agency, “Thanks, but your services are no longer desired.”
In any event, the nation would make a good policy move by severing the link between accreditation and eligibility for federal money.