Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, noted at his March 10 hearing on the for-profit Ashford University that accreditors are incapable of evaluating multistate, billion-dollar distance education programs. In this instance, his target was one of the large regional accrediting bodies that enjoy a monopoly over the institutions in their geographical areas and control their access to federal funds.
The problem that Harkin seeks to remedy lies not in the challenge of protecting federal dollars at large for-profit colleges, but in the absence of meaningful accreditation standards for quality undergraduate education.
Institutions, both for-profit and nonprofit, gladly take billions of private, state and federal dollars each year.Those with their own high academic standards add value to the lives and careers of students. But it is exceedingly hard to see how their regional accreditation has anything to do with their integrity and success.
Here are a few facts:Dozens of regionally accredited nonprofit schools have six-year graduation rates below 33 percent.Twenty six percent of four-year college graduates would have difficulty calculating the cost of ordering office supplies from a catalog.
The recent University of Chicago Press publication, “Academically Adrift,” concludes 36 percent of college students show little cognitive growth over four (expensive) years. All of these students attend fully accredited nonprofit institutions.
Standards? The national study of core curricula, “What Will They Learn?,” shows that nearly 40 percent of the nonprofit, fully accredited institutions it includes do not require college-level mathematics.
Less than one-fifth require a survey course in American history or government.Students pay thousands of dollars per year for school.But when it comes to what they will learn, regional accreditors, apparently, are not terribly concerned.
It is time to reinvent accreditation. As it now exists, it is a cumbersome, labor-intensive process for the institutions.Because the approval of the accreditor who holds sway in a given region determines whether or not the school can receive federal scholarship funds, the stakes are exceedingly high.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of staff hours are turned to meeting the reporting demands of the accreditor. And the result of all of this sound and fury? Signifying nothing of importance to the public, to judge by the quality problems we see. So let’s cut the knot.
The “gatekeeping” function that allows colleges to admit students bearing federal student loans and scholarships should rest on a financial audit by a licensed firm—a more reliable indicator of financial health than anything the regional accreditors now do—along with a certification of quality indicators, such as tuition, graduation rates, loan default rates and employment/licensure data.
There should be significant penalties for misreporting information, much like those set for noncompliance with Title II of the Higher Education Act. Beyond that, accreditation should be voluntary.
The accreditor’s reputation and livelihood will depend on its reputation for rigor and integrity. Chances are good that a new system of voluntary accreditation would become a true “race to the top” for academic quality and demonstrated learning outcomes.
That might just be transformative for American higher education.