Who’s in charge of our colleges and universities—their boards of trustees or the accreditation organizations that are the gatekeepers of federal aid? That’s the question I’m left asking after a decision by the Southern Association of Colleges (SACS), one of six regional accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, to put the University of Virginia, founded in 1819 by no less than Thomas Jefferson, on “warning.”
SACS’s action comes in the wake of efforts by the University of Virginia’s governing board this summer—later reversed—to remove President Teresa Sullivan in favor of a leader more aggressively focused on cost controls. After months of criticism and second-guessing of the board’s decision, last month the accreditor sanctioned the university and placed it on a warning status pending further investigation.
As the former president of two universities, I know this is not the first time accreditors have inappropriately injected themselves into governance issues and contributed to the breakdown of oversight in higher education. As the organizations that control access to federal student aid, accreditors hold much sway over colleges and universities. When they interfere with institutional autonomy there are few trustees—or presidents for that matter—who are willing to cry foul.
Accreditors are supposed to protect students and taxpayers by ensuring that federal aid flows only to schools with “educational quality.” But accreditors increasingly interfere in institutional decision-making and use their bully authority to tie the hands of colleges and universities. Frankly, there’s nothing more intimidating to schools—public or private—than the threat of losing accreditation and with it federal financial aid. That’s why most presidents and trustees quietly accede to accreditors’ demands.
When it comes to accreditors’ real assignment—ensuring educational quality—the record is dismal. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, conducted by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the literacy of college-educated citizens dropped significantly between 1992 and 2003. Of college graduates, only 31% were classified as proficient in reading compared with 40% in 1992.
Academic rigor has also declined, evidenced by rampant grade inflation. Fully 43% of all grades at four-year universities today are As. Given this low bar, it is perhaps not surprising that the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that a majority of four-year college graduates—yes, college graduates—were unable to satisfactorily compare two editorials or compute and compare the cost per ounce of food items. Is it any wonder that employers consistently report that college graduates lack the skills and knowledge needed for America to compete in the global work force?
Under the accreditors’ watch, student-loan debt in the United States has topped a trillion dollars, exceeding that of credit-card debt. That’s outrageous. Yet taxpayer dollars are still on the line, as the student-loan default rate climbs, and students continue to borrow and borrow. This serves neither the interests of taxpayers nor students. By almost any measure, the accreditation system designed to protect the taxpayer and ensure quality is a public policy and regulatory failure.
For decades, these accreditors have effectively guarded the status quo, focusing on process and resources rather than on educational excellence. The law school accreditor, the American Bar Association, for example, demands a certain percentage of tenured professors at each school and limits the amount of online learning that can be offered.
The accrediting body known as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges has repeatedly undermined institutional decision-making. Most famously, in 1992 it threatened the accreditation of California’s Thomas Aquinas College unless it changed its exemplary Great Books curriculum of classic readings, a central component of that Catholic institution’s course work, to make it more “open.” At least the accreditors had the wisdom to back down.
In 2007, when the University of California regents attempted to deal with runaway administrative costs through modest salary and benefit changes, they found themselves spending precious time responding to accreditor complaints that trustees were “unnecessarily harsh” with administrators. These are not isolated incidents. Across the country, boards of trustees are being effectively sidelined in their oversight responsibility, in deference to accreditor pressure.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni recently filed a complaint with the Department of Education decrying SACS’s interference with the University of Virginia governance powers and processes established by Thomas Jefferson himself. Anyone who knows American history, and regrettably few students do, would realize that Jefferson would be mighty upset to learn that a bunch of federally empowered bureaucrats are overstepping their authority and interfering with the internal governance of his university.
Let us hope that the Department of Education makes it clear to SACS and the rest of the accreditors that they are out of line. Accreditors should concern themselves with the quality of the education an institution provides and not the politics, squabbles and decision-making processes of trustees. If accreditors are allowed to overrule trustees’ decisions, American higher education will lose the diversity, flexibility and independence that has made it great.
It is time for the University of Virginia and presidents and boards across the country to say no to this meddling, and it is time Congress recognizes what a failure the system of accreditation has been. Over the years, accreditation has increased costs without protecting quality. A new, transparent system of quality assurance is needed to protect the public—before it’s too late.