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The Inmates Running the Asylum?

An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation


Our current system of higher education accreditation is broken. The system is mired in secrecy, delivers imprecise and largely unhelpful information, is clouded by possible currents of self-interest, restricts entrepreneurial initiative, is often costly to administer when all costs are considered, and is not sufficiently outcomes based. It does a poor job of conveying important information to those funding it, and its relevance as a quality control and enhancement device is at best marginal.

By Andrew Gillen, Daniel Bennett and Richard Vedder | October 2010

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Accreditation in higher education originated as a means of communicating useful information about the quality of various institutions of higher education. Yet, over the past half century accreditation has evolved into a system for determining eligibility for the receipt of funds from third parties, most notably the federal government, but also in many cases state governments or private philanthropies.

If the nation were starting afresh on accreditation, we predict it would devise a radically different system than the one it has become over the past century. Would we have multiple regional accrediting agencies? We doubt it. Would the accreditors be private entities largely controlled by individuals themselves affiliated with the institutions that they certify? We doubt it. Would accreditation largely be “an-all-or-nothing” proposition, where institutions are simply “accredited” or “non-accredited” with few distinctions in between? We doubt it. Would an accrediting mechanism be permitted where key elements of the assessment are not available for public review? We doubt it. Would accrediting that sometimes emphasizes inputs rather than outcomes be permitted? Again, we doubt it. In short, there are numerous characteristics of today’s system of accreditation that are subject to questioning and criticism.

Americans spend vast amounts of money buying houses, cars, and major appliances—yet none of these things are “accredited.” We have developed other means of providing information. For example, Consumer Reports, J.D. Powers and Associates, and Underwriters Laboratories all give consumers information and the products they are purchasing, and private home inspections by disinterested third parties help assure that real estate transactions truly represent what buyers and sellers expect. Why, then, do we “accredit” colleges and universities? There are legitimate reasons, but the presumption that current methods are optimal is misplaced.

The typical policy paper on accreditation does a fine job of detailing the history of the system and major issues that confront it today. It then usually concludes by sketching out some recommended reform. However, while it may point out a few areas in which the proposed reform would be an improvement over the current system, there is rarely any discussion about how such a reform is better than the alternatives, or what impact it would have in other areas.

This paper takes a slightly different approach. While throughout we do discuss some of the historical role of accreditation, our main focus is on evaluating the performance of the current system and evaluating possible reforms. Thus, it is suggested that readers have some prior familiarity with the history and practices of accreditation.
Part one presents our analysis of accreditation’s performance. Because its role and function in higher education has changed over time, we find it worthwhile to discuss the history of accreditation very briefly. We identify four eras of accreditation in order to assess both its effectiveness and its changing role over time. To facilitate our analysis, we have devised a rubric with which to evaluate accreditation and reform proposals. The first column lists the main categories that we feel the accreditation system should be evaluated upon, including quality improvement, quality assurance, and promoting the health and efficiency of the higher education system. The second column breaks some of these categories into more refined areas. Using this approach focuses the evaluation of the current system as well as proposed reforms on all of the most important dimensions and demonstrates how public policies addressing one issue can create or exacerbate problems in others. The scorecard also provides an abridged and illustrative summary of our analysis.

Part two of the paper identifies the most commonly suggested reforms of, and replacements for, accreditation. We analyze the likely impact of each reform, and briefly discuss whether it would be appropriate given the goals as have been discussed. The third part of the paper builds off the conclusions of the first two parts to make the case for replacing the accreditation system. The final part lays out our recommendations.

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Andrew Gillen is the Research Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He received his BBA from Ohio University and an MS and PhD in Economics from Florida State University.

Daniel L. Bennett is a Research Associate at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He holds a MA in Applied Economics, with a focus on labor and international issues, as well as a BBA, from Ohio University. He currently is a doctoral student in Economics at Florida State University.

Richard Vedder is director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, and he has written and lectured widely on the cost of higher education. He received a BA from Northwestern University and a MA and PhD from the University of Illinois.


Acknowledgements

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity would like to thank Lumina Foundation for its generous support of this research.

Lumina Foundation for Education is an Indianapolis-based private foundation dedicated to expanding access to and success in education beyond high school. Through grants for research, innovation, communication and evaluations, as well as policy education and leadership development, Lumina Foundation addresses issues that affect access and educational attainment among all students, particularly underserved student groups, including adult learners. The Foundation bases its mission on the belief that postsecondary education remains one of the most beneficial investments that individuals can make in themselves and that society can make in its people. For more details on the Foundation, visit its Web site at www.luminafoundation.org.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of Lumina Foundation for Education, their officers, or employees.