In the early spring of 1989, not long before the Tiananmen Square protests, my wife and I were visiting China on behalf of the U. S. Agency for International Development to consult with Chinese higher education officials about educational reform. This was a unique time in China, when political discourse was relatively open and when many educators were emboldened to be openly critical of governmental policies.
During one of our many fascinating conversations, a high-ranking education official from the Shanghai district leaned close to us and asked, in a very serious tone, “How is it that you Americans are so successful at keeping your government from interfering in the operation of your universities?”
This was a question I had never before considered, since in the U.S. we tended to take the autonomy of our higher education institutions for granted. But after a few moments of reflection, it suddenly dawned on me: Of course, it’s the accreditation process!
Most other governments justify their active involvement in the policies and practices of colleges and universities on the grounds of quality control: since institutions are supposed to serve the public and since they receive governmental support, the government has a responsibility to ensure that the programs are of sufficient quality to protect the public and to justify the expenditure of public funds.
In the United States we have managed to avoid such government control through a unique process called private accreditation, which in most instances consists of a peer review process where a team of knowledgeable academics from other institutions gathers together to assess the programs, policies and practices of the institution being evaluated.
Anyone who has ever been a member of a visiting accreditation team knows how exacting and thorough the whole process can be. In fact, I have frequently heard team members complain about all the uncompensated time and work involved in reviewing documents, visiting the institution, participating in team discussions, and drafting the report.
But they do it because they know it is the price they have to pay to maintain quality in our system. Less often do team members recognize that accreditation is also the means by which we maintain our autonomy and independence from government interference.
Lately we have been hearing a lot of criticism being directed at accreditation, especially from Capitol Hill. While some of this criticism is no doubt warranted, the most ominous fault-finding comes from those who are suggesting that the government should no longer accept the quality judgments of accrediting teams as a basis for determining eligibility for student aid and other forms of governmental support.
If the federal government sidesteps the accrediting process and begins to engage in its own brand of quality control, American higher education is in for big trouble. Just ask the Chinese.
While it is true that the pace of reform in the accreditation process can sometimes seem glacial, it is important to realize the process has undergone significant change in recent decades. When regional accreditation was criticized in the 1960s for focusing too much attention on mere resources such as the size of the endowment or the number of books in the library, the regional associations began to insist that their members instead devote more attention to student outcomes.
As a matter of fact, it is probably no exaggeration to say that the current “assessment movement” in American higher education has come about largely through the actions of the regional accrediting associations. While we can debate the value and usefulness of current assessment technologies, it is difficult to argue that the increased attention being given to student learning and development is not a healthy development in American higher education.
Some contemporary critics of accreditation have complained about the regional arrangement, where each of the six regions sets it own requirements and standards. While there may be some advantages to greater uniformity, national standards might well create some of the same problems associated with federal control, including diminished flexibility and the erosion of institutional diversity.
It should be pointed out, incidentally, that the increased focus on student outcomes was pioneered initially by only one or two regional associations, and subsequently spread to the other regions.
Critics who have no first-hand experience with accreditation often fail to understand that “accreditation”—the binary decision to either grant or withhold accreditation—is seldom the main issue in most accreditation visits.
Rather, the focus of the team review is instead on institutional improvement: What can this institution do to strengthen its programs and practices? Institutions generally take the team’s recommendations for change very seriously. So while the accreditation team must always consider the question of whether an institution meets minimal standards required to merit accreditation, its primary concern is usually with institutional improvement. It seems likely that institutions will be much more inclined to take criticism seriously if it comes from informed professional peers rather than government bureaucrats.
This essay is not intended to serve as an apologia for accreditation. Indeed, there is much about the process that could be improved.
But if we wish to preserve what is exceptional and excellent about American higher education -- diversity, path-breaking research, academic freedom, and innovative approaches to curriculum and instruction -- then we have to make sure that our primary means of quality control remains independent of government.
Alexander W. Astin is Allan M. Cartter Professor Emeritus and founding director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles.