Phi Beta Cons

Accreditation

I’m glad that Anne has opened up discussion on this subject.
Here is the <a href="

http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2006/03/31/accredit”>link to the story on Inside Higher Ed, which contains links to the papers issued by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.
The main issue paper, “The Need for Accreditation Reform” by Robert C.

Dickeson, sets forth most of the weaknesses in our current accreditation system. The glaring failure of accreditation is to stem the dumbing-down that has swamped many American colleges and universities. Dickeson cites the recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy survey which finds depressingly low rates of literacy among college graduates. (He points to the low percentage of college graduates who can be deemed “proficient” in their literacy skills, but might have further strengthened his case by pointing to the statistics that about one in six college graduates gets a degree despite having only “basic” or even “below basic” literacy.) If accreditation were doing its supposed job of ensuring good educational quality, how could that be?
The trouble is that the regional accreditation associations have never made any effort at assessing educational results. Colleges and universities could have abysmally weak academic standards and yet retain their accreditation because accreditation is based on having the right inputs and procedures, not on whether students are learning anything. Most people may think that accreditation is something like the Underwriter Laboratory stamp of quality assurance, but in truth, accreditation is neither necessary nor sufficient for educational quality. (I know a very successful lawyer who graduated from an unaccredited law school.)
Dickeson’s paper misses one important drawback to the current accreditation system, though — its tendency to push institutions toward ever more “diversity.” Back in the 90s, the Western Association threatened to revoke the accreditation of Thomas Aquinas College because it saw no need to bow to the diversity mania and change its educational approach to suit the diversiphiles (as Peter Wood terms them). Fortunately, Western had to back down in that instance, but I have heard that accrediting teams often make a point of “suggesting” that institutions should do more to diversify their faculty, curricula, admissions, and other things to become more “inclusive.”
In short, accreditation is a failure.
Do we want to federalize it, though?
The proposal for a National Accreditation Foundation which would be a “private-public operating partnership.” It would “create and maintain quality standards that are at once rigorous and transparent.” (Among other things.)
Even if there were a constitutional role for the federal government to play in higher education, which there isn’t, I wouldn’t be eager to have such an entity. Dickeson and Commission Chairman Charles Miller are apparently able to see clearly the problems we have in higher education, but they won’t be running the show. In all likelihood, the Foundation would eventually be captured by the higher education interests that like the status quo. My guess is that even if good quality standards could be written initially, they would either be watered down or ignored in time.
What we need is an educational analog of Underwriters Laboratories — a non-governmental entity that would assess colleges based on their success at adding to the skills and knowledge of the students. A lot of accredited schools would shudder at that.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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