Anne D. Neal

The French have an education ministry; the English put their faculty in charge. In America, the Tenth Amendment makes it clear that education is not one of the powers specifically delegated to the federal government. As a consequence, colleges and universities are run by lay boards of trustees secured from federal interference, thanks to Daniel Webster’s 1819 suit before the Supreme Court. Various protocols such as academic freedom protect this independence, and institutions justly defend it. American higher education has thrived because of its institutional autonomy.

Free from government intrusion, academic institutions in the United States developed a nongovernmental system of peer evaluation. In true Tocquevillian spirit, voluntary educational associations arose in the late nineteenth century to differentiate colleges from high schools—that is, true “higher” education from secondary education. Over the years, these bodies developed criteria to identify the characteristics of a sound educational program. They called this identification process accreditation.

With the 1944 passage of the GI Bill, accreditation took on the role it has today—to serve as a gatekeeper for federal education subsidies. At the time of the bill’s passage, Congress believed that accreditation would ensure accountability without subjecting institutions to harmful external controls. The U.S. Secretary of Education annually certifies which accrediting associations are “reliable guarantors of educational quality.”

In the 1940s, the federal spigot was barely on. Now, sixty years later, federal student financial aid alone exceeds $78 billion a year.1 For a college or university to lose its accreditation would be a fatal blow. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that in the more than sixty years that the federal government has mandated accreditation, a mere handful of schools have been shut down, and those largely for financial reasons. As far as the accreditors are concerned, only one has been officially deemed inadequate during the past twelve years. Does that mean every accreditor is a reliable authority on education quality?

In a word, no.

The regionals that accredit the vast majority of four-year institutions across the country have carved up their “market” into regional cartels, offering institutions virtually no choice in the accreditor they can use. Given the monopoly they exercise and their power as federal gatekeepers, accreditors have been able to apply intrusive prescriptive standards and have enforced ideological tests and other criteria unrelated to educational quality. As David Justice of DePaul University has admitted, “the truth is that regional accrediting associations aren’t very good about sanctioning an institution for poor quality.”2

The accrediting review teams are composed of the personnel of institutions that will eventually be reviewed themselves. And these teams cannot reasonably be expected to be independent arbiters of quality. Knowing that their own institutions will undergo accrediting review, there is a tacit interest in keeping standards low, so review teams predictably go easy on criticism. As one commentator put it, “that accreditation simply reflects low standards is not surprising since the power for mediocrity resides simultaneously in the academy and the accrediting process. They are exactly the same people!”3 It is also perhaps no surprise that more than one academic insider has confessed to manipulating the process to achieve desired results. According to Arthur Rothkopf, former president of Lafayette College and a member of the Spellings Commission, administrators desiring to increase the size of the library or create a study abroad program can use the accreditation process to their advantage—whether or not it bears directly on “educational quality.”4

The bottom line?

The accreditation regime fools the American people, pretending that the process implies quality when it often does not. Rather than focusing on quality assurance for the public, which was what Congress intended, accreditors in fact view themselves as promoting institutional improvement, a role that the voluntary system initially fulfilled. Accreditors play a diagnostic, interpretive role in which institutional self-knowledge, not public information, is the key component. In this way, accreditors’ interests are noticeably different from the interests of the federal government. While Congress wants quality assurance, accreditors want internal review. As practiced, accreditation thus fails to provide real accountability to the public.

Accreditation Is Part of the Problem

Despite this disappointing reality, policymakers and trustees have generally assumed that accreditation guarantees quality. In fact, the opposite is true. General accreditors tend to be protective associations for colleges and universities. Specialized accreditors often attempt to benefit faculty members in particular disciplines—at the expense of broader institutional needs.

My own organization, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) first brought this issue to light in 2002 when it issued the report Can College Accreditation Live Up to Its Promise?5 The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has been outspoken on the problem as well, noting in its 2007 report The Scandal of Social Work Education that the professional organizations of social workers “grant a privileged status to a single, arguable view, which is thereby placed above critical examination,” although critical examination and debate are the pulsing heart of academe.6 Scholars will not be surprised, then, that the accrediting agency for schools of social work, the Council on Social Work Education (CWSE), takes a rather dim view of academic freedom. The answer to the NAS question, “How far has the trend toward advocacy in social work education gone?” is unfortunately too obvious. CWSE requires all accredited programs to ensure that students “understand the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination and apply strategies of advocacy and social change that advance social and economic justice.”7

According to the unaccountable bureaucrats of the accrediting teams, no American student is properly studying social work if he or she does not learn to apply strategies of “social change that advance economic justice” as these agencies narrowly define them. It is no wonder that Missouri State University thought it was doing its job when it blithely incorporated those “standards” into its social work curriculum. But a 2006 First Amendment lawsuit and an external review called by Missouri State president Michael Nietzel found quite the contrary.8 Rather than guaranteeing educational quality, the accredited Missouri State School of Social Work was actually subjecting students to ideological “bullying” (a term that both students and faculty used to describe the actions of certain professors), and producing a learning environment that reviewers called “toxic.”

The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), like the CSWE, has forced an ideology on its schools. Taking the lead from their accreditor, education schools across the country adopted criteria regarding students’ acumen in “social justice” and “diversity.” According to a 2005 piece in the New York Sun, students at Brooklyn College complained that they were penalized in a course on high school literacy when they challenged the professor’s assertion that grammatical English is the “language of the oppressors.”9 That same year the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Washington State University’s threat to dismiss education student Ed Swan because he expressed his beliefs on such topics as gun control and religion—after being asked to do so in class.10 When ACTA, the NAS, and others brought these actions to light, NCATE agreed to drop the “social justice” provision from its standards, and its status as an accreditor was renewed.11 The immediate problem of ideologically-charged terminology was solved, but the real problem—the accreditation process itself—remains.

Arthur Levine, former head of Columbia Teachers College, struck closer to that source in a report released a few weeks later. Levine revealed not only that students taught by graduates of non-NCATE-accredited schools do as well as those taught by graduates of accredited ones, but also that the most selective and best teacher education programs tend not to pursue NCATE accreditation at all.12 In his words, “accrediting policy and standards are more likely to reflect the practices of the average or subpar programs rather than the outstanding ones. This is true of accreditation governance and review committees as well.”13 When the people who decide what constitutes academic quality will themselves be judged on academic quality, it’s no wonder that the bar is set low.

Showcasing yet another example of accreditor overreaching, in 2006, George Mason School of Law professor David Bernstein objected to the American Bar Association (ABA) threat to withhold accreditation for law schools that do not adequately consider racial diversity in admissions—even though such considerations might violate state laws like California’s Proposition 209.14 The American Law Deans Association (ALDA), too, criticized the ABA, arguing that “the accrediting body inappropriately inserts itself into the internal affairs of the institutions it accredits and does so in a way that forces homogeneity, and conversely stifles innovation and diversity, among law schools.”15 The ALDA represents administrators at about one hundred top law schools and the board of directors that criticized the ABA included the deans of Chicago and Harvard law schools.

The problem of heavy-handed accreditors is not limited to the politicized accreditation of professional schools. Under the authority they wield as agents of the federal government, accreditors are able to interfere with institutional autonomy, the very principle the government enlisted them to protect. The major regional accreditors of colleges and universities not infrequently insert themselves into the internal affairs of their member schools. Accreditors attempt to undermine the power and authority of duly elected and appointed trustees who, in the eyes of the law, hold the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of their schools.

In the early 1990s, the Middle States Association threatened to withdraw accreditation from Baruch College, a public institution in New York City whose faculty was 18 percent minority, on the grounds that it did not meet standards for racial and gender “equity and diversity.”16 Middle States also threatened to shut down Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia because the school did not have any women on the governing board.17 These days, the board of trustees at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina finds itself in a life-or-death struggle with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which put the school on probation because the association disagreed with its board’s strategic plan. In response, the school filed a federal lawsuit.18

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has intruded further. In what appears to be a clear case of the accreditor picking sides, WASC initiated in 2006 a review of leadership and board activities at the University of California (UC). The team, which invaded the UC campuses the following year, concluded that the UC board of regents had fostered a “culture of interaction” that results in “unnecessarily harsh…treatment of UC administrators, faculty, and staff.”19 Far from promoting the public interest, accreditors forced the regents and chancellors to devote precious time, not to mention taxpayer dollars, responding to their meddling and inaccuracies. More recently, WASC cited St. Mary’s, a small Catholic college in the Bay Area, for, among other things, exhibiting what the accreditor deemed a “sustained lack of civility.”20 It’s by no means clear what WASC considers sufficient civility, but it is clear that neither the Higher Education Act (HEA) nor regulations give accreditors the authority to intrude on institutional autonomy in ways that effectively regulate the free exchange of ideas on campus.

Given the examples recounted above, it’s not surprising that accreditation has increasingly come under attack—and not just by ACTA and NAS. After the Middle States incident at Baruch College, then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander sounded the alarm, deferring Middle States’ recognition and calling for a report from the Department of Education’s (DOE) advisory committee on accreditation. The late Berkeley professor and NAS member Martin Trow, then the committee’s chairman, went to the heart of the matter, asking, “Who sets the agenda on the campus?” He commented that “[t]he accrediting agency may be coming on campus as one of the contending forces.”21

Accreditors’ continued interference in the governance of institutions they oversee is particularly troubling. Trustees are the ultimate fiduciaries of a college or university. Their outside experience and perspective constitute an important check on the senior administrative insiders who to a great degree run both the universities and the accreditation agencies. Accreditors examine trustees for behavior rather than schools for learning. And as Secretary Alexander recognized, this intrusion is neither authorized nor acceptable.

The DOE’s Inspector General has also raised concerns. In 1992, he told the House Education and Labor Committee that “billions of dollars available to students each year through loans and grants are at risk, in part because the recognition process does not assure that the accrediting agencies use appropriate and effective policies to accredit schools.”22 As a consequence, Congress amended the HEA in 1992 and again in 1998, specifying that accreditors develop standards regarding “success with respect to student achievement in relation to the institution’s mission, including, as appropriate, consideration of course completion, state licensing examinations, and job placement rates.”23

Most recently, in 2006, the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education concluded that the accreditation system had “significant shortcomings” and asserted that the “[t]he growing public demand for increased accountability, quality and transparency” required a “transformation of accreditation.”24

Yet when the DOE tried to find a way to ensure educational quality, what did the higher education lobby do? They claimed that institutional autonomy was under attack and a national ministry of education was right around the corner—and went running to Capitol Hill for redress. After intense lobbying from One Dupont Circle, the Senate and House approved bills that left the determination of learning goals and standards up to institutions, while giving accreditors freedom to act in whatever other ways they chose. The “solution” got it wrong on both counts, but the establishment continued lobbying, seeking to water down further provisions for promoting student achievement and accountability. In particular, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation lobbied for limits on the Secretary of Education’s ability to monitor student achievement and related standards, and against requirements that accrediting agencies at the very least review the information that federal law requires institutions to provide to students. The council also lobbied for adding to the membership of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI).25 In the HEA that eventually passed, the One Dupont Circle crowd got virtually all it wanted.

Be Careful What You Ask For

Having succeeded in their lobbying efforts, higher education may now have achieved what ACTA had only hoped for—namely, eliminating any reason to keep accreditors as gatekeepers of federal dollars.

Today, higher education is a $250 billion industry; our colleges and universities receive billions in federal and state aid, tax exemptions, and targeted appropriations in the form of research grants. Far from being a free market, it is a highly subsidized industry, where nearly a third of its funding comes from the federal government.

Notwithstanding immense federal outlays, Congress has tried over the years to remain relatively “hands-off.” Indeed, Congress adopted the federal accreditation system as a means of protecting the public interest while ostensibly preserving institutional independence. It approved massive amounts of federal financial aid, with relatively little direct regulation, in the belief that institutional peer review would ensure that federal dollars went only to institutions of guaranteed “educational quality.”

Congress’ calculation has proven wrong. Rather than guaranteeing educational quality and protecting the public interest, peer review teams of accreditors have too often focused on their own or institutional interests at the expense of the American taxpayer. What worked well before as a confidential, voluntary system of self-improvement has, in the form of mandated federal accreditation, become a secret and clubby system that, while accepting Uncle Sam’s largesse, provides no warranty for quality in return.

Higher education is right to insist on autonomy. But higher education can’t have it both ways. It can’t expect to receive billions in federal financial aid and then insist that institutional autonomy somehow prevents it from any form of real oversight. Yet, thus far, it has largely succeeded in doing so.

When students are being saddled with debt but are not graduating in four (or even six!) years or demonstrating basic knowledge in core subject areas, Congress has a right to know why. When students default on five billion dollars in loans annually, Congress needs to see how higher education uses those subsidies. These concerns underscored amendments to the HEA in 1992 and 1998 that focused on student achievement and student learning. And these concerns were the driving force behind recommendations made by the Spellings Commission and the DOE to reform and transform the existing accreditation system. Otherwise, as one professor puts it, “the public treasury is emptied in support of a catapulting decline in basic national literacy.”26

But, in listening to One Dupont Circle, Congress has essentially put lobbyists first—and students, parents, and taxpayers last. The new accreditation provisions in the Higher Education Opportunity Act not only fail to protect the public interest—but effectively end any reason to continue to employ accreditors as instruments of federal power. In the past, accreditors were charged with being “reliable” authorities regarding educational quality. In order to be certified by the federal government as gatekeepers of federal funds, they had to establish that their standards effectively addressed the quality of institutions with respect to “student achievement.” Now, Congress has removed their quality assurance role altogether, saying it is essentially up to the institutions to decide what “quality” is, while accreditors are presumably left free to meddle, as they often do, in matters unrelated to educational quality. By removing the accreditors’ role in setting those standards, Congress has effectively said to our colleges and universities: We will give you billions of dollars to spend, and trust you to do the right thing. Congress no doubt thought it was championing institutional autonomy, but in doing so it eliminated the government’s only interest in requiring accreditation—namely, to provide third-party oversight of taxpayers’ hard-earned funds.

Given this radical change, it’s time for Congress to eliminate accreditors as federal gatekeepers in favor of measures that will better protect the public interest and ensure institutional autonomy. The DOE already determines what Congress needs to know to protect the public, namely institutional financial responsibility—the baseline for all other measures of integrity. Existing regulations require that institutions submit audits every year and maintain good standing with the DOE in order to participate in Title IV programs. These reviews ensure that student loan funds are expended on financially responsible institutions and provide consumer protection without the intrusiveness of federal accreditors and the well-documented shortcomings of self-regulation.

Once set free from its gatekeeping role, the accreditation community could transform itself in numerous ways. After the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, for example, loggers, foresters, environmentalists, and sociologists joined together to form the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).27 The FSC sets voluntary standards and criteria on what amounts to a well-managed and sustainable forest and then it accredits organizations to certify those forests that meet the criteria. The FSC certification is widely known, widely accepted, widely prized, and drives consumer behavior. Accreditors—freed of federal mandates—could potentially work in the same way, offering various levels and kinds of accreditation of value to both the consumer and the institution.

Meanwhile, students and parents have access to more information about colleges and universities than ever before from books, magazines, and the Internet. Last year, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges (NASULGC) announced the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA), a data-reporting initiative in which many of their members have opted to participate.28 Consumers will be able to make decisions based on the information provided by the VSA’s “College Portrait” far more easily than they can on the very minimal public information conveyed by the current accreditation process.

Adopting a financial certification standard means that institutions will no longer be required to undergo accreditation visits, but they can call upon accreditors if they find their services useful or strategically valuable. Meanwhile, the onus will be placed on trustees, and not the federal government, to ensure quality. In the past, trustees have often remained hands-off when it comes to educational quality. But, as Jane Tatibouet, a regent of the University of Hawaii, acknowledged at a recent public forum, accreditation was part of the problem. “The threat of a sanction or actual probation is the first tool used to keep a board under the accreditor’s thumb, ultimately preventing the board from performing its role both as steward and visionary while addressing accountability, financial and cost controls, and academic excellence,” she said.29 As a consequence, faculties have attained, over time, virtually unlimited power over academic concerns, while it has become commonplace for boards and presidents to exercise little or no oversight.

For the Immediate Future

For the immediate future, Congress should adopt an alternative to the existing process. In 2007, Congressman Tom Petri of Wisconsin proffered an amendment that would have allowed previously accredited institutions to report to the public every five years on key institutional measures.30 Rather than relying on the secretive accreditation process, which occurs only once every ten years, this approach would have provided parents and students with helpful and regular information while giving institutions the ability to opt out of the existing process if they felt that time and resources could be utilized in more productive ways.

This kind of legislative alternative reflects the kinds of measures that NASULGC and AASCU have already proposed voluntarily, and would thus allow institutions to offer specific information on educational quality and outcomes. By stipulating the inclusion of certain pieces of information, Congress would help lead the way in developing commonly accepted standards of excellence, including learning outputs and cost data, comparable across similar institutions. The current system has been criticized on Capitol Hill and by the Spellings Commission for its lack of transparency and friendliness to students—but a simple revision along these lines would provide for much greater transparency and accountability to the public.

ACTA drafted a similar measure, which was adopted by the American Legislative Exchange Council as model state legislation.31 In the interests of protecting institutional autonomy, this legislation does not dictate precisely what schools must say or do. It simply responds to the public demand for accountability by insisting that schools provide key information that will help parents and students understand whether colleges and universities are doing their job well.

Provide Competition in the States

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has taken the lead in showing how states can detour around the costly, time-consuming regional accreditation route. The board recently approved new rules that will allow any accrediting bodies recognized by the DOE, not just the regional accreditor, to accredit colleges in Texas.32 The new rules also establish an alternative path to state certification along the lines of the proposed federal amendment, giving new entrants a way around the existing accreditation process. Of course, to be fully effective, credit transfer limitations must be abolished—and these measures have that long-term goal in mind.

A college that needs or seeks both regional and one or more specialized accreditations may be faced with a medley of inconsistent and uncoordinated standards that add to the difficulty and costs that accreditation entails. The Texas alternative means that institutions of all kinds will now be able to enter and compete in Texas, giving students more choices and parents and taxpayers greater accountability.

Break the Accreditation Monopoly

Accreditors do not function within the marketplace. Instead, they operate essentially as regional monopolies, facing no real competition, and unwilling to shut down the flow of student aid dollars—no matter how mediocre the institution.

The federally mandated accreditation system promotes cartel-like behavior. If the University of Florida would like the New England Association to accredit it, why shouldn’t it be able to win that accreditation? There simply is no good reason to divide up a national educational system into regional cartels. Does anyone believe in such a concept as “regional quality” of education?

At a minimum, the DOE and state governments should require all colleges and universities to solicit bids for accrediting services, just as they do for other services. The Secretary of Education could—with a flick of her pen—open up the process by insisting that all regional accreditors operate across the country, rather than artificially restricting their activities to specific regions. The existing accrediting regime not only dampens competition but hinders new institutions from entering and innovating. At the same time, colleges and universities should support the creation of new accrediting agencies—agencies that offer institutions a choice in terms of focus and expertise. There isn’t one fixed and optimal way of providing education, and there needn’t be one fixed way for accreditors to operate. Indeed, accreditors could greatly improve their worth to the public if they would delve into strengths and weaknesses rather than just scanning institutions to see if they fit the general profile of acceptability.

In this regard, accreditors might enhance their value by developing expertise in reducing costs. They could, as Teagle Foundation president Bob Connor has suggested, take a lesson from voluntary accrediting associations in other fields such as the United States Green Building Council, which has developed silver, gold, and platinum standards to give consumers a meaningful and graduated determination of whether a house, office, or other building meets rigorous standards.33 The legislative alternative introduced in Congress could offer foundational principles for a new agency, and Texas organizations have already announced their plan to create a new accreditor along these lines.34

Accreditors Should Apply Consistent Standards

Accreditors can and should apply consistent, meaningful standards relating to educational quality—and end unwarranted interference in other areas. Even with the changes adopted by Congress, there is nothing to prevent accreditors from certifying only those schools that demand a serious course of study. While the DOE questioned whether the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE) was taking appropriate measures to ensure student learning, in fact AALE has offered the kind of rigorous accrediting framework to which all accreditors should aspire, a framework thankfully acknowledged by the DOE’s recent recertification of AALE.

Rather than the broad and often costly criteria applied by the regional accreditors, AALE directs member institutions to issues of educational quality, without interfering with institutional autonomy:

  • Does the institution define and enforce academic entrance requirements that ensure students are prepared to take the required college-level general education courses?

  • Do general education requirements guarantee a basic knowledge of math and the physical and biological sciences; foreign language; literature; the political, philosophical, and cultural history of Western civilization; and the foundations and principles of American society?

  • Does the curricular structure ensure an orderly progression from elementary to advanced levels of knowledge?

  • Do students write substantial essays at every stage and demonstrate their proficiency in written English?

  • Does the institution evaluate student progress in learning through a general exam?

  • Do permanent faculty members, including senior ones, teach introductory courses as well as courses for majors, and are they regularly engaged in academic counseling?

  • Is teaching supported and rewarded?

  • Does the institution have a clear, published policy defining its commitment to liberty of thought and freedom of speech?

  • Does the school regularly conduct external peer reviews? How does it act upon those reviews?

  • Does the school make available to the public printed materials demonstrating student learning and achievement?35

Accreditors and institutions offering liberal learning must not shirk their responsibility to ensure that students have learned what they need to know—and, as AALE has shown, they can do so without resorting to bright line standards or homogenized outcomes.

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