The Corner

Tougher Accrediting Won’t Solve Our Higher-Ed Woes

Among the many myths of the administrative state is that the way to ensure quality services is to have rules written and enforced from on high by experts. The higher-education version of that myth has it that we can ensure quality postsecondary education for the great number of students who get federal financial aid, by only allowing them to use that money at schools that have been accredited by an agency that has been “recognized” by the ultimate experts at the Department of Education. These accrediting organizations have lots of standards meant to guarantee that when students go to an accredited school, they won’t get ripped off. Of course, the accreditation agencies are expected to oversee the schools they have given their stamp of approval.

But what if they only pretend to? What if they pocket the fees their “member” schools pay to them for their supposed expertise without doing much (if anything) to actually check up on them? Then, of course, we find that large numbers of students are spending time and money on college education that is of scant value (even if it’s largely their own fault that they learn little).

That’s exactly the situation we find today. Some colleges pretend to educate the weak students they enroll, expecting that the agency that accredits them will keep smiling upon them, perhaps at worst occasionally issuing some warning that can be addressed at little expense. College accreditation is just a showy game.

The Department of Education, however, has disrupted the game. First, it declared war on for-profit colleges and decided that one of the biggest, ITT, was so bad that it had to shut off the flow of federal student-aid money, thereby killing off the enterprise. Then, logically, the Department went after the accreditation agency that had pronounced ITT sound enough to receive federal student-aid money. That organization is the Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). Back in September, the Education Department decided that it would no longer “recognize” ACICS as a federal accreditor. By itself, that decree doesn’t mean that ACICS has to die, but there is no reason for any educational entity to pay for its services (whatever they might be) now that it can’t make them eligible for federal money. So one of the twelve recognized accreditors is about to go under.

This is the situation I discuss in my latest Pope Center article.

The impending demise of ACICS has some people very happy. They see it as a step toward restoring “integrity” to accreditation. Once the others get the message, they will stop letting bad schools slide by and we will enjoy greatly improved higher-education outcomes.

I don’t think so. Expecting distant accreditation agencies to bring about good or even somewhat improved educational outcomes is like the way the Soviets used to think that they could improve their economy with better plans from Moscow. We will only get good educational results when students spend their own money in a competitive market. As it is, many students spend other people’s money in a higher-ed system geared to favor some kinds of institutions over others.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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