Another Accreditor Abuses Its Power

by Avi Snyder

In the late 19th century, business owners used to tell their employees that if they didn’t vote for the candidate the employer favored, profits would go down and the workers’ jobs would be at risk. It was a not-so-subtle message to vote the “right” way or end up out of a job.

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) hasn’t made any threats that harsh, but it’s hard to read about their recent actions and not be reminded of those Gilded Age businessmen.

The ACCJC in a subsidiary of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one of the nation’s six regional accrediting agencies. In July, it decided to strip the City College of San Francisco of its accreditation. But a month later, it was reprimanded by the federal Department of Education for the way it handled the situation. Inside Higher Ed now reports that the ACCJC encouraged the colleges it accredits to write letters of support on its behalf.

Just like factory workers who depend on their bosses for wages, colleges depend on their accreditors for access to federal funds, without which most schools couldn’t survive. Fulfilling an accrediting agency’s request is about as voluntary as accepting an offer from Tony Soprano.

Unfortunately, this type of conflict of interest isn’t an anomaly; it is part and parcel of the college accreditation system. In the words of former U.S. senator Hank Brown, “the agencies charged by Congress with determining if a college is eligible to receive federal dollars are funded and staffed by the institutions whose quality they are supposed to ensure.” This massive conflict of interest means that the interests of a college are bound up with that of its accreditor and vice versa. Colleges make sure that money keeps flowing to the accreditors, and accreditors make sure colleges can hop on the federal gravy train.

A far better system would decouple federal funding from the accreditation system. It would also make room for a wide variety of accrediting agencies to spring up. This would turn accreditation into a voluntary system of peer review and would prevent accreditors from exercising inappropriate influence on colleges and universities.

But as long as the status quo continues, we should expect to hear more stories like the ones coming out of San Francisco.