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Accreditation is often defined as the "voluntary" system of peer review by which higher education regulates itself. But there’s really nothing voluntary about it, some critics argue, given that colleges and universities must be accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Education Department for their students to qualify for federal financial aid. In essence, if you want your students to receive federal student aid – and virtually all institutions do, and many would not survive without it -- you must be accredited.

The accrediting agencies serve as the "gatekeeper," then, to the U.S. Treasury, giving the accreditors much of their authority, and the ramifications of that linkage are significant -- and increasingly vexed. Some critics of accreditation have argued that the fact that accreditors have the power to essentially kill institutions by stripping their accreditation makes the associations extremely wary of rendering negative judgments, and means that they too often go soft.

And lately, some college officials have grown increasingly troubled by the pressure that the federal government is putting on accrediting agencies to dictate policies to institutions -- on student learning outcomes and other matters -- and have suggested that breaking the linkage to federal financial aid might end what has come to look like an invitation for the federal government to intrude.

At a session Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, a panel of longtime participants in and critics of higher education accreditation weighed the pros and cons of accreditation’s “gatekeeper” role and wrestled with the question of whether it serves higher education’s and society’s interests for the relationship to continue as is.

Dissatisfaction about the structure and performance of accreditation is pretty much as old as the regulatory system itself, and it emerges in part because of what Robert C. Dickeson, a higher education consultant and president emeritus of the University of Northern Colorado, described as the accreditation system's bifurcated mission. Accreditation began as a system designed primarily to help institutions improve themselves, but the formal relationship with the federal government gave accrediting agencies a full-blown role as higher education’s assurer of quality.

When Congress or the U.S. Education Department decide that they want higher education to move in a new direction or colleges to take on additional roles, they often change the laws or rules governing accrediting agencies to help them bring about the change for the institutions they oversee. “Accreditation is like a pack animal – we keep expecting accreditation to solve all of our problems,” said Dickeson.

Robert H. Atwell, former president of the American Council on Education, agreed with Dickeson that linking accrediting agencies to access to federal funds has essentially “made the accrediting bodies agents of the federal government,” with the result that the agencies can be whipsawed by whimsical changes by a new executive branch administration and can be forced, in turn, to impose those swiftly changing mandates on colleges. College leaders have complained in recent months, for example, that the Margaret Spellings-led Education Department has sought to "federalize" accreditation by pressuring accreditors to adopt common standards for student learning outcomes.

For Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the problem with the federal link is not that it can result in too much regulation of colleges, but that it can produce too little. Accreditors, she said, are sometimes afraid to hold colleges accountable because they know that if they use their ultimate weapon -- stripping accreditation, leading to loss of federal financial aid -- they can put a college out of business.

“The gatekeepers never close the gates,” said Neal, whose group has argued in multiple reports for an overhaul of accreditation. (Neal now also serves on the Education Department panel that assesses and recognizes accreditors, though she made clear that she was not speaking for the panel Tuesday.) “Virtually every institution in the country gets accredited, while the objective indicators show us that the quality [of higher education] has declined under the accreditors’ watch.” The public is growing increasingly skeptical about whether colleges are providing a quality education, Neal said, and accreditors offer little by way of reassurance.

She added: “In the embrace of Uncle Sam, accreditors are unwilling to say no. They don't want to shut anybody down.”

Robert H. Glidden, president emeritus of Ohio University and a former chairman of the board of the accreditation council, agreed that “when the consequences are so great, there probably is less tendency on the part of our colleagues to discredit” an institution. “Would we be better as accreditors without that gatekeeping function?”

Neal answered Yes without equivocation. “Wouldn’t it be nice to set you all free,” she asked accreditors in the audience, to focus on questions of institutional purpose, teaching quality, and student success?

Ending the gatekeeper role might create a “simpler, cleaner world in which the stakes of the decision would be lower and therefore encourage more consequential action,” said Stanley O. Ikenberry, another former president of the American Council on Education and president emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But while such a change might be better for institutions and accreditors, he said, “that still leaves the question about how the federal government satisfies its needs and requirements.”

The answer is that if the accreditation system did not exist as a stand-in for the federal government in ensuring quality in higher education, said Dickeson, the government would have to create a new one, “and if it does, we’re not going to like the replacement.” He characterized the discussion about breaking the federal link to accreditation as “hopelessly academic,” because there is no viable alternative.

Neal took a stab at proposing one nonetheless. She suggested a system in which the Education Department would set minimum standards for financial viability and integrity that colleges would have to meet to participate in the student aid programs, colleges and accreditors would focus on producing much more data about their performance to assure consumers about their quality, and accreditors would compete with one another for the right to help individual institutions improve themselves and innovate.

“This would allow accrediting organizations to operate in a market, hired by institutions if they offer something of value. I would hope that institutions would continue” to seek out the services of accreditors even if they needn’t to gain access to federal funds.

Neal’s notion that colleges would willingly go through accreditation if it wasn’t required drew what began as a few murmurs, then built into a full-scale rumble of chatter and laughter through the crowd of mostly college officials, which seemed to suggest that many would not.

Atwell agreed with Neal that it would be best to "break the link" between accreditation and federal student aid, but he and Dickeson put forward competing but roughly similar plans designed to strengthen accreditation's quality assurance role while minimizing the federal role. In both of their plans, the government would in some formal way subcontract higher education quality assurance to a national group -- CHEA being the obvious one, they said. The group would take on a stronger role in coordinating the work of the regional accrediting agencies, perhaps even crafting a common set of national standards that would help provide a common view of what "quality" is in higher education, perhaps answering Neal's call to provide more reassurance to parents and policy makers.

Dickeson, who described his proposal as a greatly modified version of the harshly critical proposal he made as a consultant to the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education -- which created a firestorm of opposition -- called for the creation of a foundation that would strengthen the financial foundation of accreditation. The changes would "have the effect of solidifying power and authority for this special industry," Dickeson said.

"I would not eliminate the [regional accreditors], but I'd have them within a national -- not federal -- framework," Atwell said.

Regional and other accreditors would almost certainly object to such a plan, and some said they believed they were already working toward adopting some of the common standards that Atwell and Dickeson described as one underlying goal of their proposed arrangements.

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