July 11, 2012

What's Wrong with Accreditation--A Textbook Case


By Andrew Gillen

The world of higher education is abuzz with the news that a for-profit university, Ashford University, whose Iowa campus holds accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, has been denied accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) for its online headquarters. Denial of accreditation for schools that already have it is pretty unusual and gives us a rare glimpse into accreditation and a detailed example of what's wrong with the existing system.

An Evidence-Based Decision?

According to the Chronicle, "Ralph A. Wolff [president of WASC]... said the extensive process was meant to provide an evidence-based reason for the association's decision on Ashford."

That certainly sounds reassuring. And WASC is leading the way on transparency, publicly releasing documents relating to the decision (though the posted versions of the documents are non-searchable, a significant barrier to actually making use of the documents).

One might expect to see some evidence about how Ashford University students are learning less than comparable students at other WASC-accredited universities. If so you'd be disappointed. Turns out student learning is not an important consideration when it comes to accreditation. Here are the allegedly unmet standards cited in denying Ashford accreditation for its large online program:

  1. Student retention and completion, methods of tracking student progress, and support for student success (Criteria for Review (CFR) 2.6, 2.10-2.14);
  2. Alignment of resource allocations with educational purposes and objectives (CFR 3.5);
  3. A sufficient core of full-time faculty members, and a faculty model that provides for faculty development and oversight of academic policies and ensures the integrity and continuity of academic programs (CFRs 3.2, 3.11);
  4. An effective system of program review (CFR 2.7);
  5. An effective system for assessing and monitoring student learning and assuring academic rigor (CFRs 2.1, 2.2., 2.6., 4.4); and
  6. An empowered and independent governing board and a clear and acceptable relationship with the parent company (CFRs 1.6, 3.9, 3.10)

And here they are translated into the categories of criteria they are evaluating:

  1. Outcome, Process, Input
  2. Input
  3. Input
  4. Process 
  5. Process
  6. Governance 
The problem is that none of these reasons should matter when it comes to accreditation. (Measuring outcomes is good, but graduation and retention rates are a poor proxy for the outcome that matters--student learning. See here for more details on this point.)

All that really matters is whether Ashford is educating students or not. But accreditors don't monitor that, instead they focus on inputs, processes and governance. It would be one thing if there was one set of inputs, one set of processes, and one governance structure that was known to produce strong educational outcomes. In that case, basing accreditation on those inputs, processes and governance would be acceptable. But there is no one set of inputs, processes, and governance structure that are guaranteed to produce the best educational outcomes, so it is inappropriate to base accreditation decisions on them. Bluntly stated, WASC's (and other accreditors') standards on inputs, processes and governance structure are neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure adequate educational outcomes. Yet they constitute the bulk of the reason for denying Ashford accreditation.

Conflict of Interest 

There is also an unavoidable conflict of interest when it comes to accreditation. Of the 26 individuals that apparently decided this case, 20 were affiliated with another university (3 more were WASC employees). Given that the "disruptive innovation" of online education is pretty much the only thing that can threaten traditional universities and that Ashford had a large online element, those 20 individuals had an inevitable interest in denying Ashford accreditation. It is certainly possible that Ashford doesn't deserve accreditation, but a decision from a body with such clear conflicts of interest casts doubt on the validity of the decision.

Selective Enforcement

According to Inside Higher Ed, one of the reasons for the denial of accreditation was that, in Wolff's words, "This level of attrition is, on its face, not acceptable."

Ashford's six-year graduation rate, 34%, is pretty atrocious. But if this is why they were denied accreditation by WASC than why do the University of Hawaii at Hilo (graduation rate 33%) and California State University-Dominguez Hills (graduation rate 31%) both have WASC accreditation?

Ashford's retention rate does stand out as being low, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, the University of Hawaii at Hilo's retention rate is almost double Ashford's (71% vs. 36%), but their graduation rates are nearly identical. Thus, Ashford enrolls lots of students who don't stick around, and graduates few, while the University of Hawaii at Hilo enrolls lots of students who stick around, yet still graduates few. Which is the better approach? It is not clear.

The Result: Accreditation is a Barrier to Entry and Suppresses Innovation 

So what are we to make of accreditation, a system that inappropriately focuses on inputs and processes, has conflicts of interest, selectively enforces its requirements, and neglects outputs and outcomes? The most logical conclusion is that accreditation is simply a barrier to entry designed to protect existing universities. Why else make the existing universities' inputs and processes a requirement for all universities? Why else give existing universities so much say over who can join the club?

The spectacle of entrenched interests protecting their turf is bad enough in itself, but the even bigger tragedy is that it also suppresses innovation. When you dictate the inputs to be used and the processes to be followed, as accreditation currently does, you eliminate the possibility of innovation that discovers how to accomplish the goal with different, less expensive, inputs and processes.

That accreditation is a barrier to entry--enforcing inappropriate input and process requirements--is bad. That a consequence of this is the suppression of innovation is unforgivable. Figuring out how to educate more students with less money is perhaps the most important national goal right now, and it requires innovation, but accreditation sabotages the necessary innovation. It is time to redesign the accreditation system.


Andrew Gillen is the Senior Researcher at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). 

Comments (5)

George Leef:

Excellent analysis of accreditation, which is overwhelmingly about going through the collegiate motions the right way, not about whether courses are taught well and students learn anything.


These college organizations of Accreditation are totally unnecessary. What we need is a National Group of Public Major Corporations to provide a system to measure and determine whether or not a student has skills in a particular academic subject. i.e. whether or not the student understands and can use the information he's gained by taking the course.

Colleges and Universities are going to have to change or they will disappear


Albert Einstein's famous quote, "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds" applies here.

Like other great movements, non-traditional educational opportunities will become the norm, and those schools that do not adapt will either disappear or become the anachronisms of the 21st century.


Well, actually I think retention is as important as graduation, although I agree those graduation numbers also suck. The reason for that is that a lot of people around here seem to take out student loans mostly for the cost of living money. If someone does thatp and then drop out you can guarantee that they will not be able to pay back their loan. This cumbers them with debt destroying their future, as well as putting the monkey on the taxpayer.

Egomet Bonmot:

If people affiliated with other universities are off limits in deciding accreditation, where do you propose they come from? To make a case for bias I'd want to know the actual positions these 20 held, their stated & written opinions etc, that might predispose them against online schooling. Doesn't every tenure decision at every college and university represent a conflict of interest? It's too low a bar imho.

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