February 19, 2013

The Damage That Accreditors Do


By Richard Vedder

If I were asked to name the ten organizations most adversely impacting Americans - I would undoubtedly think of a few terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or criminal elements like Russian or Italian Mafia crime families, but also on my list, right below the quasi-corrupt NCAA that exploits young athletes to profit and entertain adults, might be the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, hereafter SACS. Actually, SACS is one of a half dozen regional accrediting bodies whose decisions can determine whether a college exists or not, and most of what I say about SACS could be said about other regional accrediting groups, such as the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, or about subject accrediting groups like the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the American Bar Association, or the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. 

Why are groups like SACS not merely ineffective, inefficient, or wasteful, but also harmful and very damaging? These groups originally were information and consumer protection devices, like Underwriters Laboratories, useful groups certifying whether a school was qualitatively reasonably good, not a diploma mill. They were voluntary associations designed to sort out the good for bad, and to promote best practices.

What went wrong? Let me enumerate at least ten problems with accreditation today:

  1. They provide almost no useful consumer information. As it operates today, accreditation is like pregnancy -you are, or you are not. There are no gradations of quality. All grades are the equivalent of either "A" or "F", and failures are very rare;
  2. They are riddled with conflicts of interest -almost the entire SACS higher education board, for example, is made up of individuals affiliated with SAC members. A school is evaluated by personnel from other nearby SACS schools, perhaps ones that only last year your school was evaluating. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours;
  3. Accordingly, almost no significant-sized school has been put out of business for quality reasons;
  4. SACS, and perhaps other accrediting groups, actually discriminate against excellence; it has threatened actions against the University of Virginia and the University of Florida, because it did not like the fact that the political process and state laws played a role in university governance (in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidy), but have issued no such academic fatwas against, say, Norfolk State University (four-year graduation rate 14 percent) or Florida Atlantic University (four-year graduation rate 17 percent); Virginia and Florida are ranked by Forbes as the first and seventh best public universities in America;
  5. Accreditation reports are completely non-transparent -usually they are not released to the public, despite the fact they often contain interesting critical comments about the schools--the public only gets the "bottom line" positive re-accreditation;
  6. Historically, schools have been evaluated more on inputs rather than on outcomes;
  7. Non-academic, even racialist criteria are sometimes applied -the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, has reportedly pressured some of them regarding the composition of students or faculty because they did not like the skin coloration of those groups, even though the requested (required?) personnel changes might actually lower perceived academic quality;
  8. They have served as barriers to competition; Dana College in Nebraska, for example, was put out of business by the Higher Learning Commission because it was being bought by a for-profit operator; getting accreditation is costly and keeps some innovative new entrants from offering services to the public; 
  9. Increasingly, accrediting agencies are subjected to political control or pressure; President Obama in his State of the Union put schools on "notice" that they would be in trouble (presumably via threats to accreditation) if they raised tuition fees more than what Obama or the Education Department  regards as desirable, promoting more undesirable over-centralization of American higher education;
  10. The preparation and adherence to accreditation standards takes lots of resources and time, which would be worth it if the process were useful, but currently is mostly a monumental waste of money.

Let me elaborate on SACS' attacks on the universities of Virginia and Florida. At the University of Virginia, the Board of Visitors, the legally constituted supreme governing group, determined that Teresa Sullivan was not meeting expectations, and fired her. After a campus uproar, they rescinded the action. The campus community liked Sullivan, and was furious that the Visitors who hired her had determined she was not aggressively fulfilling their hopes regarding new educational innovations.  

SACS warned UVA that it had violated two of its 44 pages of rules and regulations. For example, on page 31 of its Principles of Accreditation, SACS requires "the institution publishes policies on the responsibility and authority of faculty in academic and governance matters (faculty role in governance)." Since the Board did not ask the faculty's permission to fire her, the standard was violated. The State of Virginia, going back to Thomas Jefferson, has asserted both control and support of the University. The law of the Commonwealth of Virginia gives the Visitors the right and obligation to select the top leader. SACS is saying, no, the faculty has presumptive veto power over board "governance" decisions. (Remember the late Bill Buckley's comment that he rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard College).

The arrogance, the contempt for external accountability is appalling. In the Florida case, Governor Rick Scott urged University of Florida president Bernie Machen to rescind his resignation; earlier he had urged the President of Florida A and M to resign. SACS said that is unacceptable. Scott actually did nothing except express his opinion, but SACS apparently believe it is the duty of governors, governing boards, and taxpayers to provide buckets of money to schools but have virtually no input beyond that. Isn't it time that SACS itself be "warned" -or "dis-accredited?"


Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches as Ohio University, and is an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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