Time to Step Back

Higher education accreditation is badly flawed. But expanding the federal role, as Margaret Spellings proposes, is the wrong way to fix it, Jane S. Shaw writes.
August 15, 2007

The last thing I want to do is defend the system of college and university accreditation that we have now, which I believe is seriously flawed. But I do want to argue that bringing in more government control will make it worse.

The secretary of education wants to mold accreditation to the current fashions of higher education criticism, to incorporate “student learning outcomes” such as graduation rates and other quantifiable measures that can be used to compare one school with another. But embedding these concepts into regulations is a recipe for stagnation. It means that graduation rates will be measured for years after they become meaningless in a world of lifelong learning, and today’s imprecise measurements of learning will become a series of inappropriate tests enshrined in law. And they’ll be costly, too.

Indeed, in my view the chief problem of accreditation is that the federal government already has too much control.

Consider the history of accreditation. Decades ago, regional accreditors were private organizations composed of schools that wanted to show that they met quality standards. Accreditation was like the Underwriter’s Laboratory seal for electrical appliances -- a voluntary way to signal that minimum standards (for safety, in the UL case) were met.

That changed, beginning with the G.I. Bill, as the federal go vernment began to provide aid to colleges by supporting students through grants and then low-interest loans. Unwilling to back up the expanding federal aid with direct monitoring of institutions -- and nudged by a few scandals -- government officials eyed the regional accreditors as gatekeepers. The accreditors received, in turn, an enormous increase in prestige and power.

This support from the federal government has enabled the six regional agencies to function in a way that economists would call a cartel. They divide up the country and operate without competition -- while holding life-or-death power over the institutions that they “represent.” This arrangement stifles innovation and slows to a crawl the creation of new institutions (such as independent online universities).

But the overweening power that the government bestows on accreditors may be less harmful than what seems to be coming down the pike -- or was, until Congress rapped the secretary’s knuckles, forcing her to back off from promulgating new federal rules on accreditation and, in legislation that has now passed the Senate, restricting her power to do so in the future.

I agree that it’s important to measure student outcomes. But the federal government is not the one to do it, or even to insist on it.

Yes, there's a dilemma. The federal government gives many billions of dollars, via students, to the nation’s universities and colleges, and, yes, it has a fiduciary responsibility to use those billions wisely. I’ve noticed, however, that fiduciary responsibility for taxpayer money rarely comes up when we talk about defense expenditures or farm subsidies.

Frankly, I do not expect fiduciary responsibility from government. We have just gone through a painful episode of malfeasance with respect to student loans. Inappropriate lending practices were no secret, but they went on for years with little oversight by the Department of Education or anyone else.

In the case of accreditation, the federal government uses the agencies to keep money from going to “diploma mills.” The government should leave it at that. It’s simply not capable of assessing the intricacies of measuring outcomes.

And if the idea of measuring student outcomes is a good one, why does anyone need to force it on our schools, anyway?

Higher education is clearly undergoing a period of self-examination, as evidenced by books like Derek Bok's Our Underachieving Colleges and the PBS book and documentary Declining by Degrees. Efforts are being made to identify student outcomes. These include keeping records of graduation rates (which, in spite of Secretary Spellings’ concerns, seem to be widely published), the National Survey of Student Engagement, and the 2006 civic literacy study of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

And then there are the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Although U.S. News is rightly criticized for its "input" and "reputational" measures, I understand that the editors are open to new measures of outcomes, and there are other rankings, such as the Princeton Review, the Fiske Guide, and Kiplinger's.

Secretary Spellings' own Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued a report that has spurred a national dialogue about how to improve our schools. The secretary's legacy should be the national conversation to which she has contributed, not more government meddling.

Unfortunately, the best resolution of the accreditation conflict is politically impossible: drastically reduce federal scholarship aid. Let Congress appropriate an amount of aid that the government can intelligently monitor and provide it as grants to poor but qualified students.

But if aid continues to burgeon and the department must continue to rely on accreditors, it should at least open up accreditation to more players. Last spring it did just the opposite by retracting its recognition of the American Academy of Liberal Education. By removing AALE, it tightened the
grip of the cartel.

This is not a good prognosis, in my view, for positive results from future government tampering. My recommendation is: Hands off, Secretary Spellings.


Jane S. Shaw is the executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C.


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