March 22, 2013

Accreditors--Hip Deep in Politics


By Richard Vedder

Accreditation is rapidly changing. Instead of remaining just a mildly annoying and inefficient barrier to innovation and change in higher education, it is evolving into a major impediment. Increasingly outrageous decisions by power hungry accreditation czars are becoming a serious problem. I have recently written about this issue here, but the problem is growing so rapidly that more needs to be said.

The most recent outrage comes from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association, the nation's largest regional accrediting organization. The HLC has issued a stern fatwa: education is a public, not a private good, and the mission of accredited institutions must reflect that.  The accreditation standards make it explicit that "educational responsibilities   take priority over other purposes, such as generating financial returns for investors...."  This statement, if interpreted narrowly, could mean that for-profit higher education is not permitted. Already politicians like Senators Dick Durbin and Tom Harkin have publicly called for the HLC to critically examine the University of Phoenix, which might largely explain why that institution--by some measures America's largest university-- is on probation. In short, the whole process is increasingly being politicized, with senators telling accrediting agencies what to do -and those agencies are listening.

Attacking the New Competition

Academics for the most part do not understand markets or the constructive role that profits play in allocating resources and ultimately in raising living standards. They mostly welcome the attacking of the new competition from the for-profits, institutions that have shown an ability to educate students more efficiently than traditional schools.  The accrediting agencies are controlled by academics from traditional institutions who want any excuse to use their accrediting power to suppress the for-profit schools that have captured close to 10 percent of the market.

Once considered a mechanism to uphold minimum academic standards, accreditation now increasingly is designed as a device to impose politically correct ideologies supported by the accrediting agencies.  Thus HLC-accredited schools must be sure that the "institution's processes and activities reflect attention to human diversity."  As Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor have so brilliantly demonstrated in Mismatch, this means schools are being pressured to give preferential treatment to those in favored groups, such as blacks and Hispanics, as opposed to those in groups with less favorable skin coloring, such  whites and Asians. HLC is far from alone in doing this. The American Bar Association, which accredits law schools, has been particularly vicious in its apparent insistence that law schools show racial preferences in their admission practices, as any long-time faculty member at the George Mason Law School (which has been especially harassed by the ABA) will attest.

The High-Minded New Racism

To me "racism" means expressing views and taking actions on the basis of the race or ethnicity of individuals or groups of peoples. Therefore, I think the accrediting agencies are at the forefront of a New Racism -pressuring university personnel to consider carefully race in making decisions regarding admissions, hiring, and contracting.  Thus not only do they promote inefficiency, by my way of thinking they are morally reprehensible.

But what do we do? Do we need accrediting agencies?  They certainly do not perform the meaningful function of assuring quality, as they expend great efforts attacking some of the nation's greatest schools, such as the University of Virginia, while ignoring other institutions  with six-year graduation rates that are barely in the double digits.  Being immodest for a moment, I think my Center for College Affordability and Productivity does more to provide consumer information (by doing the Forbes Magazine ranking of colleges and universities) than HLC--at a tiny fraction of the cost. So do other ranking organizations, such as US News & World Report.

The only significant raison d'etre for accreditation today is that it distinguishes schools that are so bad that they are undeserving of federal financial assistance (for either the school or its students). If the federal government got out the business of throwing money at higher education -an eminently sensible idea - accreditation would undergo a precipitous decline. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen any time soon.

A Measure of Workplace Competence

There is much to be said for moving to alternative ways of certifying college worthiness, ways that are not binary in nature (you are either accredited or not accredited). One approach would be to develop a national Higher Education Institutional Quality Index which draws from the ranking methodologies used by people like Bob Morse at US News and myself for Forbes. A key component of that index could be a national exit examination for college graduates that measures general educational knowledge.

This also could be of great use to employers in lieu of, or in addition to, a diploma as a certification device regarding workplace competence. What about an Index, one-third based on the exit examination, one-third on the post-graduate vocational/educational experience of students, and one-third on four- or five-year graduation rates? The index could be constructed so "value added" by the institution becomes part of the score -a school taking less able students cannot be expected to have graduates who score as well on the exit exam as those at elite selective admission schools. The index could be computed so the top-ranked school gets a score of 100, and others are accordingly given a numeric value. The U.S. government could deny aid to students and institutions scoring below, say, 20. Colleges are loathe to be compared with one another, so they would fight this approach tooth and nail.

There are other approaches, including going to a course-accreditation rather than degree-accreditation approach. Does the whole (the college degree), equal the sum of its parts (the courses taught)? There are a whole range of alternative certification approaches.  While some may be better than others, almost anything would be better than our current broken system of accreditation.

Richard Vedder heads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches economics at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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