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Chapter 23: Reform Accreditation to Reduce Barriers to Entry

Accreditation is an information device. Schools that are “accredited” meet at least minimal standards of quality. Unaccredited schools likely have weak academic standards, and some might even be diploma mills that simply give away degrees in return for a cash payment.  It is widely accepted that the certification of minimal standards is a generally good idea, but there are legitimate concerns that the existing system of accreditation is far from optimal.

There are two major types of accreditation organizations –regional accreditors that evaluate entire institutions, and subject specific accreditors.  Strong arguments can be made that the current organizational structure of accrediting agencies is flawed (as in having seven regional accreditors instead of one national one, for example). Historically, these agencies have focused on inputs, not outcomes. Because federal financial assistance is tied to accreditation, the accrediting agencies are gatekeepers as to who can offer higher educational services. The cost of achieving accreditation is often high, a big barrier to entry to new, smaller schools. The organizations also may suffer from major inherent conflicts of interest, with their governing boards often made up largely of representatives of organizations that they accredit. This may explain why new approaches to educational service delivery have trouble winning accreditation (the firm StraighterLine comes to mind). Accreditation also provides very limited information—schools are either acceptable or unacceptable, with no graduations in between. Their operations are highly secretive and non-transparent, with details of accrediting reports not available to the general public.

A good accreditation system would provide vastly more information to the public. It would require the accrediting organizations be governed by those without any vested interest in the results. It would be outcome-based, not input-oriented. We do not “accredit” auto makers, house-builders, or appliance makers, because there is adequate information on the quality of their products provided by independent third parties. The system works well for them. Maybe conventional accreditation needs to be replaced with a vast information system giving consumers, taxpayers, and donors information that would allow for more intelligent decisions.

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