Policymakers | Trusteeship

Seeking Higher-Ed Accountability: Ending Federal Accreditation

CHANGE   |  September 1, 2008 by Anne D. Neal

The French have an education ministry; the English put their faculty in charge. In America, the Tenth Amendment is clear—education is not one of the powers delegated to the federal government. As a consequence, state charters traditionally guard schools against federal control, and colleges and universities are run by lay boards of trustees secured from federal interference, thanks to Daniel Webster’s suit before the Supreme Court in 1819.  American higher education thrives because of this freedom.  Various academic protocols—such as academic freedom—rightly protect it, while institutions assiduously defend their autonomy.

That is why accreditation arose.  In true Tocquevillian spirit, various associations emerged in the late 19th century to differentiate colleges from high schools. Over the years, these bodies developed voluntary criteria to identify the characteristics of a sound educational program, in a nongovernmental system of peer evaluation. 

But it was not until the 1940s that accreditation took on the role it has today—namely, to serve as a gatekeeper for federal dollars. When it passed the GI Bill, Congress linked the accreditation process with the distribution of federal funds. As Congress saw it, accreditation would ensure accountability without subjecting institutions to harmful external controls. In the words of the statute, accreditors were to be “reliable guarantors of educational quality.” And the U.S. Secretary of Education annually certifies which accreditors are able to do the job. 

Voluntary No Longer

So, while accreditation began as a voluntary system, it has now become virtually mandatory. In the 1940s, the federal spigot was barely on. Now, sixty years later, federal student financial aid alone exceeds $78 billion per year. For a college or university to lose accreditation would be a fatal blow. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that in the more than 60 years that accreditation has been mandated, a mere handful of schools have been shut down, and those largely for financial reasons.  And in the last twelve years, only one accreditor has been deemed inadequate.

Meanwhile, on the accreditors’ watch, the quality of higher education is slipping. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s 2004 study of general education at 50 top colleges, administered by the University of Connecticut, found that 88 percent do not require a broad course on literature, over three quarters require no foreign language, and 62 percent require no mathematics courses. “Core” requirements may be satisfied instead by narrow and often trendy courses like the “History of Comic Book Art” at Indiana University, “Ghosts, Demons and Monsters” at Dartmouth, and the University of Minnesota’s history class “Rock Music from 1970 to Present.” Without a structured curriculum, students are left ignorant in many key areas of knowledge. In a 2000 ACTA survey of students at top colleges and universities, for example, nearly three quarters could not correctly answer a multiple-choice question about the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s surely no surprise that the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that millions of American adults could not even understand narrative texts such as newspaper articles or practical information such as instructions for taking medicine. Prose literacy has decreased among every educational attainment level since 1992. Meanwhile, grade inflation is at an all-time high, suggesting students are learning when evidence shows they are not.

Accreditation Is Part of the Problem

Despite this disappointing record, policymakers and trustees have, for the most part, assumed that accreditation guaranteed quality. The opposite is true: Not only has accreditation not stopped higher education’s slide, it has contributed to it.  Far from preventing harmful intrusion into higher education, the system has empowered the accrediting cartels to impose their own standards and agendas on the schools they are meant to be helping. Political correctness, diffuse curricula, rising prices, the homogenization of higher education—all these are facilitated by the accreditors’ regime.  Wielding power as federal gatekeepers, they can enforce ideological and other tests unrelated to educational quality.  A few examples:

— The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) requires all accredited programs to ensure that students “understand the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination and apply strategies of advocacy and social change that advance social and economic justice.” According to these standards, Missouri State University thought it was doing its job. But a federal civil rights lawsuit and an external review called by Missouri State President Michael Nietzel concluded quite the contrary. Rather than guaranteeing educational quality, the accredited program at the Missouri State School of Social Work was actually “bullying” students and producing an overall learning environment that reviewers called “toxic.” 

— The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), like the CSWE, forced a particular perspective on its schools. Taking the lead from their accreditor, education schools across the country adopted criteria regarding students’ acumen in social justice and diversity. According to a May 31, 2005, story in the New York Sun, students at Brooklyn College complained they were penalized in a course on high school literacy when they challenged the professor’s assertion that grammatical English was the language of the oppressors. Similarly, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2005 that Washington State University threatened education student Ed Swan with dismissal because he expressed his beliefs on topics such as gun control and religion after being asked to do so. When ACTA and others brought these actions to light, NCATE agreed to drop the “social justice” provision from its standards, and its status as an accreditor was renewed. 

In a report issued a few weeks later, former head of Columbia Teachers College Arthur Levine revealed that students taught by graduates of non-NCATE-accredited schools do as well as those taught by graduates of unaccredited schools, while the most selective and best teacher education programs tend not to pursue NCATE accreditation at all. In his words, “teacher education accrediting policy and standards are more likely to reflect the practices of the average or subpar programs rather than the outstanding ones. This is true of accreditation governance and review committees as well.”

— In 2006, George Mason School of Law professor David Bernstein objected to American Bar Association (ABA) provisions that law schools consider “diversity” in admissions—even in violation of state laws such as California’s Proposition 209—or else face the loss of accreditation.  The American Law Deans Association also criticized the ABA, arguing that “the accrediting body inappropriately inserts itself into the internal affairs of the institutions it accredits and does so in a way that forces homogeneity, and conversely stifles innovation and diversity, among law schools.”  The Deans Association represents administrators at about 100 top law schools; the Board of Directors that criticized the ABA included the deans of the Chicago and Harvard law schools.

But the problem of heavy-handed accreditors is not limited to the politicized accreditation of professional schools. Under the authority they wield as agents of the federal government, accreditors are able to interfere with institutional autonomy, the very principle they were designed to protect. The major regional accreditors of colleges and universities routinely insert themselves into the internal affairs of their member schools.  Accreditors attempt to undermine the power and authority of duly elected and appointed trustees who, in the eyes of the law, hold the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the well-being of their schools.

In the early 1990s, the Middle States Association threatened to withdraw accreditation from Baruch College, a public institution in New York City whose faculty was 18 percent minority, on the grounds that it did not meet standards for racial and gender “equity and diversity.” Middle States also threatened to shut down Westminster Seminary because the school did not have any women on the governing board. These days, the Board of Trustees at St. Andrews Presbyterian College, in North Carolina, finds itself in a life-or-death struggle with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which put the school on probation because the association disagreed with the board’s strategic plan. In response, the school filed a federal lawsuit.

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has reached even greater levels of intrusiveness. In what appears to be a clear case of the accreditor’s picking sides, WASC took the initiative in 2006 to launch a special team to review leadership and board activities at the University of California. The team that visited the following year concluded that the Regents had fostered a “culture of interaction…that results in unnecessarily harsh treatment of UC administrators, faculty, and staff.”  Far from promoting the public interest, accreditors forced the Regents and chancellors to devote precious time, not to mention taxpayer dollars, responding to their meddling and inaccuracies. Even more recently, WASC cited St. Mary’s, a small Catholic college in California’s Bay Area, for what the accreditor deemed a “sustained lack of civility.” 

After the Middle States incident at Baruch College, then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander sounded the alarm, deferring Middle States’ recognition and calling for a report from the Department of Education’s advisory committee on accreditation. The late Berkeley professor Martin Trow, then the committee’s chairman, went to the heart of the matter when he asked, “Who sets the agenda on the campus?” Then he commented, “The accrediting agency may be coming on campus as one of the contending forces.” 

The Department of Education’s Inspector General was also deeply concerned. In 1992, he told the House Education and Labor Committee that “billions of dollars available to students each year through loans and grants are at risk, in part because the recognition process does not assure that the accrediting agencies use appropriate and effective policies to accredit schools.” As a consequence, Congress amended the Higher Education Act in 1992 and again in 1998, specifying that accreditors develop standards regarding “success with respect to student achievement in relation to the institution’s mission, including, as appropriate, consideration of course completion, state licensing examinations, and job placement rates.”

Given the examples recounted above, it’s not surprising that in two reports, ACTA raised questions about the integrity of the accreditation process. Accreditors promise to protect the public interest. In 2002, however, we asked the question: “Can college accreditation live up to its promise?” The answer was no. Under the accreditors’ watch, quality is down, costs are up, and accountability is virtually nonexistent. Higher education is in trouble—and accreditation is part of the problem.

Congress, Don’t Be Fooled

Far from ensuring academic quality, ACTA found that the federal accreditation process was actually undermining it. The accreditation process suffers from structural problems: secrecy, low standards, and little interest in learning outcomes. Far from being independent arbiters of quality, accrediting review teams are made up of the very people under review: faculty and administrators of other colleges, often from the same area. The accreditors have been allowed to carve up the country into regional cartels, giving institutions virtually no choice in the accreditor they can use. And given the monopoly they exercise, accreditors have been able to apply intrusive, prescriptive standards. Sadly, Congress has allowed them to get away with it.

It’s time for those who care about higher education to tell Congress what it needs to hear: End federal accreditation. Don’t let accreditors deceive the American people and legislators into thinking that they have certified quality, when, in fact, they are actually threatening institutions’ autonomy and diversity—at considerable cost and wasted effort. 

But don’t think the problem is solved simply by taking authority away from the accreditors and giving it to the institutions. While America’s long-standing deference to institutional autonomy and academic freedom is a good thing, our colleges and universities shouldn’t receive tax-exempt status and billions of dollars each year and then simply expect taxpayers and parents, students and policymakers to trust them in the face of massive evidence of problems. In other businesses of the size and importance of higher education, we demand transparency and accountability, and we should here as well.

Institutional autonomy exists to protect the pursuit of truth, not to protect institutions from accountability. This privilege should not be invoked to discourage appropriate oversight and real self-regulation.  But that is what is happening.  In 2006, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education concluded that the accreditation system had “significant shortcomings” and asserted that “[t]he growing public demand for increased accountability, quality and transparency” required a “transformation of accreditation.” 

Yet when the Department of Education tried to find a way to ensure educational quality, what did higher education lobbyists do? They claimed that its institutional autonomy was under attack—a national ministry of education was right around the corner—and went running to Capitol Hill for relief. After intense lobbying by One Dupont Circle, the Senate and House approved the Higher Education Act which left the determination of learning goals and standards up to institutions, while leaving accreditors free to interfere in matters of governance, cost, and management in ways that intrude on institutional autonomy without ensuring educational quality. Meanwhile, in a memo, the Council on Higher Education Accreditation urged its members to lobby for further modifications—all of them  designed to water down measures to enhance public accountability, whether by limiting accreditors’ obligation to audit institutional information, restricting the Education Secretary’s ability to appoint independent voices to the accreditation advisory committee; or seeking an end to an accreditation ombudsman. 

Going Forward

Rather than listening to the education lobby, Congress needs to listen to the people who matter: the students, parents, and taxpayers who fund higher education. In the face of mounting problems, the accreditation system neither protects the public nor ensures high-quality higher education. Congress should pursue other and better measures—at less cost and with less damage to higher education. And it is easy to do.

Decouple federal student aid from the accreditation process

The Department of Education already monitors what Congress needs to know to protect the public interest—whether institutions are or are not financially responsible. Existing regulations require that institutions submit audits every year and maintain good standing with the Department in order to participate in Title IV (student financial aid) programs. These reviews provide adequate consumer protection without the costs and shortcomings of accreditation.

At the same time, students and parents have access to more information about colleges and universities than ever before from books, magazines, and the Internet. Last year, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges announced the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA), a data-reporting initiative that many of their members have opted to participate in. Consumers will be able to make decisions based on the information provided by the VSA’s College Portrait far more easily than they can rely on the very minimal information conveyed by accreditation process.

Offer an alternative

If it won’t eliminate the existing system altogether, Congress should adopt an alternative to it. In 2007, Rep. Thomas E. Petri proffered an amendment that would have allowed institutions to report to the public every five years on key institutional measures, within the existing accrediting system.  Rather than relying on the secretive accreditation process, which occurs only once every ten years, this approach would have provided parents and students with helpful and regular information while giving institutions the flexibility to bring accrediting bodies on campus or not.

A similar measure has been drafted by ACTA and adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council as model state legislation. This model legislation does not dictate what institutions must say or do; it respects institutional autonomy. What it does do is respond to the public demand for accountability by insisting that schools provide key information that will help parents and students understand whether colleges and universities are doing their job.

Provide competition in the states

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has taken the lead in showing how states can detour around the costly, time-consuming regional accreditation route. The Board recently approved new rules that will allow any accrediting bodies recognized by the Department of Education, not just the regional accreditor, to accredit colleges in Texas. The rules also establish an alternative path to state certification along the lines of the proposed federal amendment, giving new entrants a way around the existing accreditation process.

Accreditors do not sell their services in competition with other firms. As monopolies, they have nearly unchecked power-making the accreditation process expensive for schools. Schools that are resource poor typically find themselves at a disadvantage, no matter how well they educate their students. A college that needs or seeks both regional and one or more specialized accreditations may be faced with a medley of inconsistent and uncoordinated standards that add to the difficulty and costs—including the opportunity costs—that accreditation entails. The Texas alternative means that institutions of all kinds will now be able to enter and compete in Texas, giving students more choices and parents and taxpayers greater accountability.

Break the accreditation monopoly

At a minimum, the Department of Education and state governments should require all colleges and universities to solicit bids for accrediting services, just as they do for other services. And the Secretary of Education could open up the process by insisting that all regional accreditors operate across the country, rather than artificially restricting their activities to specific regions. The existing accrediting regime not only dampens competition but hinders new entrants from innovating.
At the same time, colleges and universities should support the creation of new accrediting agencies that offer more information on students and the results they achieve. 

Do the Right Thing

As experience has shown, self-regulation at its worst is a buddy network, a barrier to entry, a closed and collegial system more concerned with sustaining itself than with enhancing the quality of higher education. Even if nothing else changes, accreditors can and should apply consistent standards relating to quality—and stay out of other areas.

Those in higher education have complained loudly about efforts by the Department of Education to emphasize student learning outcomes.  But, the fact is, one need never go that far.  If accreditors really cared about quality, they could, without further ado, insist on better input criteria, already used by at least one accreditor, the American Academy of Liberal Education, without requiring one-size-fits-all outcomes.

— Does the institution have a clear, published policy defining its commitment to liberty of thought and freedom of speech?
— Does the institution define and enforce academic entrance requirements that ensure students are prepared to take the required college-level general education courses?
— Do general education requirements guarantee a basic knowledge of math and the physical and biological sciences; foreign language; literature; the political, philosophical, and cultural history of Western civilization; and the foundations and principles of American society?
— Is teaching supported and rewarded?
— Do permanent faculty members, including senior ones, teach introductory courses as well as ones for majors, and are they regularly engaged in academic counseling?
— Does the curricular structure ensure an orderly progression from elementary to advanced levels of knowledge?
— Do students write substantial essays at every stage and demonstrate their proficiency in written English?
— Does the institution evaluate student progress in learning through a general intellectual skills examination?
— Does the school make available to the public printed materials demonstrating student learning and achievement?
— Does the school regularly conduct external peer reviews?  How does it act upon those reviews?

Trustees Must Speak Up

Of all people, trustees should be most concerned about the current state of accreditation. And increasingly, they are. Jane B. Tatibouet, a regent of the University of Hawaii, knows that the accreditation process is wasting taxpayer money and failing to contribute to the quality of higher education. As she put it at a recent forum in Washington:

“[A]ccreditors require an absurd number of reports from the institution, draining human assets that could be otherwise efficiently used. The interests of the faculty and administrators have become primary to the accreditors and in direct conflict with engaged, reform-minded trustees.  The accreditors, in my view, are subtly ‘blackmailing’ the academic institution into obedience or sanctions will be imposed. The threat of a sanction or actual probation is the first tool used to keep a Board under the accreditor’s thumb, ultimately preventing the Board from performing its role both as steward and visionary while addressing accountability, financial and cost controls, and academic excellence. Furthermore, our experience in Hawaii might indicate to some that WASC is edging into direct conflict with the state constitution.”

In the face of troubling intrusion into their self-governance role, it’s time for trustees to speak up. Rather than allowing accreditors and internal campus constituencies to bully them through the accreditation process, it’s urgent they exercise their rightful role as fiduciaries. Policymakers and accreditors need to hear from them—loudly and often—insisting on an end to federal accreditation and demanding the institutional independence that has for so long made American higher education the envy of the world.

Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and a member of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, which approves accreditors on behalf of the Department of Education.  This article is designed to offer a general discussion of policy issues and not to represent or reflect the views of the committee.  Special thanks are due to Michael Leo Pomeranz, Lewit Fellow in Education Policy at ACTA, for his assistance on this article.


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