Accreditation Needs Fixing: Seriously.

I have long been worried about accreditation issues. Regional accreditation, programmatic accreditation and national accreditation (the latter oft times used by some of the for-profit colleges). Both the Chronicle with ProPublica and InsideHigherEd had pieces today on issues within accreditation. I wrote one too. (Links to all are below.)

Here are, among many, three major issues that trouble me with accreditation:

  1. How qualified are the peers who go out and evaluate institutions and programs? How well trained are they to detect financial shenanigans? Don’t get me wrong: I support peer evaluation but I am not convinced that all peers are equally good. And “good” relates not only to professional competency but to tone and pitch and tenor of the visit and the recommendations.
  2. What exactly is the purpose of accreditation?That’s not self-evident? Is it to show that institutions meet prescribed standards (and we can debate their merits of course)? Is it to limit who is accredited (to curb competition)? Or, is it to enhance the institution being accredited, helping them to grow and flourish based on the advice and counsel of some well-trained individuals who learn about them as they evaluate them? Stated in other terms, is or could accreditation be a teachable moment — reciprocally, for the institution being accredited and for the visiting team?
  3. There is something amok with the “clubbiness” of some accreditors within their organization. Whether the Commissioners used to work together or the Commissioners enjoy time dining and hanging out together in posh places for retreats or meetings, we need to think through and probe these issues. It affects process and substance and of course, perception. And where exactly is the Department of Education, which lists approved accreditors, doing and what standards are they using to make those assessments? And, institutions being accredited of course pay for the visits and the accreditation, and the fees are not insignificant, including the costs of travel of the visiting team. For programmatic accreditation, for example, is it wise to send visitors who hail from California to an institution in Rhode Island? Really, is there no one closer who is competent? If all your friends are visitors and Commissioners, how likely are the Commissioners to speak out against the institution that is being evaluated if there are close personal relationships? Just asking. For some accreditors, it feels like there is an “in group” — which necessarily means there is an “out group.”

Bottom line: accreditation needs to be reformed. We need to measure quality. We can use peers and experts but we need to do it right and fairly and wisely. Sadly, that is not happening now with any degree of consistency across programmatic, regional and national accreditation. That’s not a good thing for anyone.


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Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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