In my work as Oregon’s college evaluator, I am often asked why state approval is not "as good as accreditation" or "equivalent to accreditation."
We may be about to find out, to our sorrow: One version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization legislation moving through Congress quietly allows states to become federally recognized accreditors. A senior official in the U.S. Department of Education has confirmed that one part of the legislation would eliminate an existing provision that says state agencies can be recognized as federally approved accreditors only if they were recognized by the education secretary before October 1, 1991. Only one, the New York State Board of Regents, met the grandfather provision. By striking the grandfather provision, any state agency would be eligible to seek recognition.
If such a provision becomes law, we will see exactly why some states refuse to recognize degrees issued under the authority of other states: It is quite possible to be state-approved and a low-quality degree provider.Which states allow poor institutions to be approved to issue degrees?
Here are the Seven Sorry Sisters: Alabama (split authority for assessing and recognizing degrees), Hawaii (poor standards, excellent enforcement of what little there is), Idaho (poor standards, split authority), Mississippi (poor standards, political interference), Missouri (poor standards, political interference), New Mexico (grandfathered some mystery degree suppliers) and of course the now infamous Wyoming (poor standards, political indifference or active support of poor schools).
Wyoming considers degree mills and other bottom-feeders to be a source of economic development. You’d think that oil prices would relieve their need to support degree mills. Even the Japanese television network NHK sent a crew to Wyoming to warn Japanese citizens about the cluster of supposed colleges there: Does the state care so little for foreign trade it does not care that 10 percent of the households in Japan saw that program? You’d think that Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Senator Mike Enzi, who now chairs the committee responsible for education, would care more about the appalling reputation of their home state. Where is Alan Simpson when we need him?
In the world of college evaluation, these seven state names ring out like George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television,” and those of us responsible for safeguarding the quality of degrees in other states often apply some of those words to so-called “colleges” approved to operate in these states -- so-called “colleges” like Breyer State University in Alabama and Idaho (which “State” does this for-profit represent, anyway?).
There are some dishonorable mentions, too, such as California, where the standards are not bad but enforcement has been lax and the process awash in well-heeled lobbyists. The new director of California’s approval agency, Barbara Ward, seems much tougher than recent placeholders -- trust someone trained as a nurse to carry a big needle and be prepared to use it.
The obverse of this coin is that in some states, regulatory standards are higher than the standards of national accreditors, as Oregon discovered when we came across an accredited college with two senior officials sporting fake degrees. The national accreditors, the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, had not noticed this until we mentioned it to them. What exactly do they review, if they completely ignore people’s qualifications?
The notion that membership in an accrediting association is voluntary is, of course, one of the polite fictions that higher education officials sometimes say out loud when they are too far from most listeners to inspire a round of laughter. In fact, losing accreditation is not far removed from a death sentence for almost any college, because without accreditation, students are not eligible for federal financial aid, and without such aid, most of them can’t go to school – at least to that school.
For this reason, if Congress ever decoupled aid eligibility from accreditation by one of the existing accreditors -- for example, by allowing state governments to become accreditors -- the “national” accreditors of schools would dry up and blow away by dawn the next day: They serve no purpose except as trade associations and milking machines for federal aid dollars.
The Libertarian View of Degrees
One view of the purpose and function of college degrees suggests that the government need not concern itself with whether a degree is issued by an accredited college or even a real college. This might be considered the classic libertarian view: that employers, clients and other people should come to their own conclusions, based on their own research, regarding whether a credential called a “degree” by the entity that issued (or printed) it is appropriate for a particular job or need. This view is universally propounded by the owners of degree mills, who become wealthy by selling degrees to people who think they can get away with using them this way.
The libertarian view is tempting, but presupposes a capacity and inclination to evaluate that most employers have always lacked and always will, while of course an average private citizen is even more removed from that ability and inclination. Who will actually do the research that the hypothetical perfect employer should do?
Consider the complexities of the U.S. accreditation system, the proliferation of fake accreditors complete with names nearly identical to real ones (there were at least two fake DETCs, imitating the real Distance Education Training Council, in 2005), phone numbers, carefully falsified lists of approved schools, Web sites showing buildings far from where the owners had ever been and other accoutrements.
To the morass of bogus accreditors in the U.S., add the world. Hundreds of jurisdictions, mostly not English-speaking, issuing a bewildering array of credentials under regimens not quite like American postsecondary education. Add a layer of corruption in some states and countries, a genial indifference in others, a nearly universal lack of enforcement capacity and you have a recipe for academic goulash that even governments are hard-pressed to render into proper compartments. In the past 10 days my office has worked with national officials in England, Sweden, The Netherlands, Canada and Australia to sort out suspicious degree validations. Very few businesses and almost no private citizens are capable of doing this without an exhausting allocation of time and resources. It does not and will not happen.
Should state governments accredit colleges?
State governments, not accreditors or the federal government, are the best potential guarantors of degree program quality at all but the major research universities, but only if they take their duty seriously, set and maintain high standards and keep politicians from yanking on the strings of approval as happens routinely in some states. Today, fewer than a dozen states have truly solid standards, most are mediocre and several, including the Seven Sorry Sisters, are quite poor.
If Congress is serious about allowing states to become accreditors, there must be a reason. I can think of at least two reasons. First, such an action would kill off many existing accreditors without having their work added to the U.S. Department of Education (which no one in their right mind, Democrat, Republican or Martian, wants to enlarge). This would count as devolutionary federalism (acceptable to both parties under the right conditions).
The second reason is the one that is never spoken aloud. There will be enormous, irresistible pressure on many state governments to accredit small religious schools that could never get accredited even by specialized religious accreditors today. The potential bounty in financial aid dollars for all of those church-basement colleges is incalculable.
Remember that another provision of the same proposed statute would prohibit even regionally accredited universities from screening out transfer course work based on the nature of the accreditor. Follow the bread crumbs and the net result will be a huge bubble of low-end courses being hosed through the academic pipeline, with the current Congressional leadership cranking the nozzle.
The possibility of such an outcome should provide impetus to the discussions that have gone on for many years regarding the need for some uniformity (presumably at a level higher than that of the Seven Sorry Sister states) in standards for state approval of colleges. We need a “model code” for state college approvals, something that leading states can agree to (with interstate recognition of degrees) and that states with poor standards can aspire to.
The universe of 50 state laws, some excellent and some abysmal, allows poor schools to venue-shop and then claim that their state approval makes them good schools when they are little better than diploma mills. We must do better.
Should states accredit colleges? Only if they can do it well. Today’s record is mixed, and Congress should not give states the power to accredit (or allow the Department of Education to give states the power) until they have proven that their own houses are in order. That day has not yet come.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.
In 1970, under the leadership of the late Clark Kerr, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education created a classification of colleges and universities to address a specific problem: existing classifications were not well-suited to the commission’s analytic needs. Three years later, the commission published “A Classification of Institutions of Higher Education” because, as Kerr put it in the foreword, “we felt that it would be helpful to many individuals and organizations that are engaged in research on higher education” (emphasis added). The purpose of the Carnegie Classification was, and continues to be, to support the study of higher education.
But in American higher education, curious things happen with such lists -- lists that say, “these colleges are similar, and they are different from those colleges.” When some groupings are populated by institutions of national prominence (let's admit it, they have much in common), and those groupings are numbered “I,” it doesn’t take long for a research-oriented classification system to look like a ranking. Add to the mix the periodic revision of the classification, and the genie is out of the bottle: Senior administrators searching for metrics of progress and success, as well as ways to win more state funding and alumni support, recruit the best talent, and perhaps advance their own careers along the way, scrutinize the architecture of the lists to ask, “How can we move up?” And the higher education press can tell a story of institutions in ascendance and falling behind, of winners and losers.
The 1973 edition of the Carnegie Classification had four sets of institutions that were subdivided into “I” and “II,” and only two of the four “I” lists contained high-status institutions. So not all joined the frenzy to move up. But enough did that the classification was frequently identified as an object of institutional strategy -- the research tool had become an unintended policy lever. Nowhere was this more evident than among the group that was most finely differentiated in the original classification, doctorate-granting universities.
As this process unfolded over the course of four classification revisions, some truly ridiculous claims were made as colleges and universities sought to spin their new “Carnegie rankings.” They boasted that Carnegie had placed them among the top 4 or 6 percent of colleges and universities nationwide, asserting by implication that all research universities are superior to all comprehensive universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. They proclaimed that overnight, the degrees of their graduates had become more valuable. When U.S. News repackaged the classification in its rankings, using terms like “national universities" and "national liberal arts colleges,” and a college's classification determined not only its U.S. News label but the colleges and universities it would be compared with, it focused the mind at many institutions whose classification had not previously been a subject of discussion or concern.
Over the years, many voiced concerns over the classification's impact, calling for various changes. Some charged that it rewarded institutions for prioritizing research over teaching. Some said it failed to adequately address the teaching and service functions. Some wanted to use the classification strategically to shape institutional behavior. In addition to the tournament mentality that had grown up around parts of the Carnegie Classification, higher education itself became more complex. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of accredited, degree-granting institutions grew from about 2,800 to nearly 4,000. The student population and patterns of participation changed, as well. And yet the analytic framework chosen by the Carnegie Commission in 1970 remained the predominant way to characterize similarity and difference among colleges and universities (with periodic changes to criteria and labels).
So starting in the late 1990s, the Carnegie Foundation began thinking about overhauling the classification system. We wanted to identify and remedy blind spots in the classification framework, while providing more nuanced and flexible ways to represent the diversity of higher education. An interim update to the basic classification framework was issued in 2000 because the then-current 1994 edition was out of date, and we began a serious effort to develop new tools for examining institutional similarity and difference along several dimensions.
This week, the Carnegie Foundation will release five new classification schemes, each of which offers a different perspective on how institutions resemble or differ from one another (institutions will be classified on each of the new schemes). In December, we will also release a substantially revised version of the basic classification framework. A preliminary version of the five new classifications has been available online for about a month, but preview's purpose is to identify and correct possible errors in individual classifications; the preview site does not provide category listings. As part of the official release, we will provide a Web-based facility for generating standard and customized classification listings and downloads.
The new classifications are organized around three central questions: What is taught? To whom? and In what setting? A system of several independent and parallel classifications provides different lenses through which to view institutions. By expanding the system in this way, we can take selected attributes that are considered in a limited way in the basic framework and delve more deeply. For example, the basic classification says nothing about undergraduate education for institutions awarding more than a threshold number of master's or doctoral degrees (and it says fairly little about it for the others). With multiple classifications, we can address undergraduate and graduate education independently. Thus we can classify with respect to the undergraduate program regardless of the extent of graduate education, and look at graduate education in a separate classification. In addition to these two classifications focused on the instructional program (what is taught), two characterize the student population (to whom) and one groups institutions according to size and residential character (in what setting).
Viewing an institution from these multiple perspectives offers a fuller, more textured portrait than is possible with a single classification. Colleges and universities will no longer be characterized on the basis of a single view of what they do. For example, a research university’s "portrait" will reflect not only its commitment to graduate education, but also the nature of its undergraduate program, the characteristics of its undergraduates, the relative size of undergraduate and graduate populations, and the absolute size and residential character of the campus. These are all important dimensions of a complex institution, but all but the first are rendered invisible in the conventional classification.
By addressing selected dimensions of similarity and difference in independent classifications, we can also examine the points of intersection among the different classifications. Which institutions emphasize professional fields at the doctoral level yet emphasize the arts and sciences in their undergraduate education? Which ones emphasize business programs at the master's level and blend the arts and sciences with occupational/professional training at the undergraduate level? Which ones serve a primarily nonresidential undergraduate student body with an appreciable share who attend part-time? Which exclusively undergraduate institutions serve a highly residential student body but admit an appreciable number of students as transfers?
Starting with the new classifications, users will be able to build customized classifications aligned with specific analytic purposes. This new flexibility also has potential to assist college and university personnel in identifying peer institutions (Which institutions share our classification with respect to undergraduate program, undergraduate profile and size and setting? Which ones have similar undergraduate and graduate program classifications?). A Web-based listing facility will allow users to aggregate within and intersect across classifications to suit their needs.
The new classifications will not solve all the problems of the old classification, and they will make some things harder. The Carnegie Classification has always been based on secondary analysis of empirical data on what institutions do, and this is at once a strength and a limitation. It is a strength because institutions are classified not on the basis of rhetorical assertions about mission, but on actual behavior as revealed in the data. It is a limitation in other respects: not everything that counts can be counted, and empirically based classifications offer a retrospective account of what institutions do. Colleges and universities are always changing, but the classifications provide a time-specific snapshot. Classification using national data is undertaken at a distance, without interviews, site visits, or close reading of institutional documents. The national data can never fully represent an institution's character or identity, and it's simply unrealistic to expect it to.
There are also important things that colleges and universities do that are not reflected in national data collections. Two new "elective" classifications -- based on voluntary participation -- will attempt to incorporate new information on two areas where institutions have special commitments. One of these is outreach and community engagement. This year a diverse group of 14 institutions participated in a pilot project to develop a framework for documenting the range of ways that they engage with community. The results of that work will inform a wider effort for institutions to participate in a new classification for community engagement. The second elective classification, to be developed in 2006, will focus on how institutions seek to analyze, understand, and improve undergraduate education.
The new classifications will complicate how we talk about similarities and differences among institutions as the simple, mutually exclusive terminology of the traditional classification gives way to a more complicated multidimensional framework. But this framework will do more justice to the multifaceted nature of the institutions it seeks to describe. Still more classifications may emerge as well, because the Carnegie Foundation does not hold an exclusive franchise on classifying colleges and universities.
Alexander C. McCormick
Alexander C. McCormick is a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, where he directs the Carnegie Classification project.
The new Carnegie classifications have emerged from gestation, showing a great deal of thought and energy, which is too bad. Once again we are classifying the boxes and not the fruit.
The education establishment works very hard to say that the classifications are not intended to represent a pecking order among institutions, but the rest of the world instantly uses it that way. The gold rush mentality causes perfectly respectable regional colleges (e.g., Western Oregon University, in my neck of the woods) to wriggle and stretch through all manner of political hoops to become “Universities,” even faux flagships such as the magically relabeled Missouri State University (another perfectly respectable regional college all tarted up with nowhere to go).
There are other classification systems. Although the nation’s system of college accreditation and state approval is not exactly a college classification system, in some ways it functions as one. There are overlapping hierarchies of academic seraphim, cherubim and what Jack Aubrey, in one of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, calls “ordinary foremast angels.” Regional accreditors, national accreditors, state agencies and licensing boards all watch with proprietary care the shifting Cassini divisions between their roles and jurisdictions.
It is time to recognize that these boxes, too, are not that different in their basic descriptions except at the lowest levels, and that what matters is the quality of programs colleges contain as related to their mission.
All college degree programs are not created equal, nor are they equal today. This may be obvious to my friends who hold senior faculty positions at the University of Oregon, Illinois, Northwestern and elsewhere in the upper strata of research institutions. These, after all, are major research universities, formally authorized to condescend by their role as the top layer in the Carnegie classification system. Likewise, my friends who hold positions at Washington & Jefferson, Reed, Davidson and other fine liberal arts colleges can nod politely from their elfin perch in the canopy layer, content to consort with fine young minds.
The distinction is less obvious to those who work in and attend the great bulk of American colleges and universities, but it is nonetheless true. All colleges glaze the clay that they are given. The clay is largely formed by the time it reaches college, but the nature of both the formed clay and the available glaze differs widely, and society expects the resultant china to perform differently under different conditions. Let us recognize this reality and stop comparing unlike things.
Meandering through the pages of any college catalog looking at degree programs is much like walking the streets of an old western ghost town (or a movie set of one). All of the programs are excellent, leading their field and cutting edge -- apparently all the faculty trained at Lake Wobegon U. The main drag of programs consists of an impressive array of two-story buildings, all of similar appearance on the front. Some have two stories of solid building behind them, full of rooms and people. Others are mainly false fronts, behind which awaits what amounts to a conveyor belt: “this way to the Egress.”
It is time to stop classifying colleges and start classifying degree programs. Today this is done on an occasional basis for certain doctoral programs by the National Research Council, but other programs are largely ignored except by specialized accreditors in certain fields. All college degrees issued in the United States should be formally classified according to the nature of the work necessary to obtain them. Classification should be mandatory and no college degree should be exempt from it.
Such a classification scheme would allow students, employers and all other interested people to decide whether a particular college degree is what they want, either as a learning experience or in an employee, co-worker or colleague. There are other classification schemes already in existence, but they do not provide the right kind of information needed by most students, potential students and employers.
Each degree-granting program operating legally in the United States should be classified according to the strength of its program as determined by experts in its field. This system should not be applied to colleges, only to degree programs individually, because there is so much variation among programs at each school except the very best and the abysmal.
Note that this system says nothing about admission standards, only about program quality. There is no reason for a program to adjust its quality and expectations based on who enrolls in it: programs should decide what level they should most sensibly be at and stay there. Students will, for the most part, self-select based on program type just as they do now. In this system, programs would be classified as follows, as determined by peers in the field, with U and G representing undergraduate and graduate programs:
Honors (U). The best undergraduate programs, maintaining the highest expectations of students, and using the most difficult and complex curricula. Intended to provide superlative undergraduate learning for its own value and, secondarily, to prepare students to study in Research programs.
Research (G). The highest level graduate programs, intended to train professional researchers and faculty for colleges and universities, exclusive of licensed professional fields. There is no such thing as a “research institution,” there are only research-level programs, and it is time for the higher education establishment to admit this.
Professional (U, G). Programs that train students to practice in licensed professions. Programs of this nature can most effectively be evaluated by professionals in the field, in part using professional licensure rates and reputational surveys within licensed professions. The Carnegie system already has a similar category.
Standard (U, G). Programs designed for a wide variety of students, but not as challenging as Honors programs, with less ambitious expectations. These programs are not designed to prepare students to obtain doctoral degrees in Research programs, although some top students may succeed in such programs.
Basic (U, G). Programs that meet the basic expectations of a college-level degree program but do not meet the requirements for a Standard designation owing to some academic deficiencies.
Nonstandard (U, G). Programs that do not meet the basic expectations of a college-level degree program, or which decline to be evaluated.
New. Designation of “New” can be applied to any program, only at its own request, during its first five years of operation, as a qualifier for any other classification. Few programs show their true colors right out of the box.
In another of Patrick O’Brien’s novels, Stephen Maturin reminds us that “the kinds of happiness cannot be compared.” In some ways, neither can the kinds of degrees. The first necessary step, however, is to recognize that differences exist and to acknowledge them, rather than pretending that all regionally accredited colleges produce the same kind of degree-earning experience, or that degrees issued for one purpose are comparable to those issued for another. This is fiction.
Let us stop using institutional classifications of dubious meaning and start classifying academic programs using a system that is honest, based on evaluation by faculty and helps people understand college degree programs, as well as pointing out which emperors are naked and which paupers wear cloth of gold.
Alan L. Contreras
Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission.