The Right Way to Reform Accreditation

by Avi Snyder

Over at Inside Higher Ed, UCLA’s Alexander Astin has an important, but flawed piece on college accreditation and institutional autonomy. He argues that American higher education has remained relatively free of government interference, because our private accreditation system assures quality without centralized government standards.

Astin’s first mistake is overstating the autonomy and diversity of accreditation agencies. We don’t really have a “private” accreditation system, as he claims. We have a pseudo-private system in which accrediting agencies must be approved by the federal Department of Education. This is one of the reasons our system is so centralized and slow to adapt and change, a fact Astin acknowledges. Accreditors aren’t just peer-reviewers. They are also federally-sanctioned gatekeepers of government funds.

Furthermore, while universities may not often deal with government overreach, they deal with accreditor overreach all the time. At schools like the University of Virginia and Tiffin University, accreditors have repeatedly interfered with institutional autonomy. And it is precisely their role as government gatekeepers that empowers them to behave in this way.

Astin does get one point correct, however. He writes, “If the federal government … begins to engage in its own brand of quality control, American higher education is in for big trouble.” If “quality control” means detailed, top-down standards, this is probably true. And many have raised concerns of this nature regarding President Obama’s proposed college rating system.

But this is no excuse for maintaining the accreditation status quo. In fact, the system of private peer review Astin describes would work far better if federal money wasn’t at stake. (The relatively speedy accreditation of the free, online University of the People is a great example in this regard.)

We need to break the link the link between accreditation and Title IV funds. But instead of switching to direct federal quality control, we should simply require colleges to provide families with independently certified information in a clear and readily accessible format on an annual basis. This information would include cost of attendance; degree programs; graduation rates; student loan default rates; student outcomes; and job placement rates. To protect the federal dollar, schools would simply establish their financial stability through an independent audit.

Such a system would rely on transparency and consumer choice in order to maintain the quality of a college degree. And that’s the kind of system we should all be on board with.