A piece by George Leef in the Pope Center’s Clarion Call makes the case that accreditation of institutions of higher learning is essentially worthless. As he explains, a recent paper notes that,

…College accreditation depends overwhelmingly on the assessment of its inputs and procedures rather than on outcomes. Schools that appear to be following the accepted model for education can get and keep accreditation. They need to have completed a lot of paperwork such as institutional mission statements and self-study evaluations, have proper facilities, employ professors with good credentials, have sufficient financing, and so on in order to earn an accreditor’s stamp of approval.

Leef is not the first person to notice that something might be wrong with accreditation. Back in June Kevin Carey noted here that the system failed to ensure that colleges were any good and also didn’t aid truly dreadful colleges that needed to improve. Because funding for accrediting agencies comes from the colleges they accredit, there’s also a series conflict of interest problem.

Accreditation questions played into Tom Harkin’s summer hearings on for-profit colleges. If these colleges were so bad, many senators asked, how were they still operating?

The answer is federal funding. In order for colleges to be eligible for federal student aid they only have to be accredited by one of several approved agencies. But accredited doesn’t actually mean the school is any good. As Leef points out, it just means the college has spent a lot of time and money filling out paperwork and performing other busy work. Leef writes:

College accreditation arose and developed long before the advent of federal student aid and turning it into the gatekeeper for access to government student aid was a mistake. When accreditation was voluntary, it probably accomplished at least some good. Now that it’s almost mandatory, it has become predictably authoritarian and wasteful. It’s time to undo the mistake.

And replace it with what? The trouble with this plan is that if we didn’t have accreditation, poor people wouldn’t go to college. How would the U.S. distribute federal higher education funding? In truth it probably is time to do something very different with college accreditation and distribution of federal money. But what depends on what the country wants to accomplish.

In Carey’s piece he recommended that “Congress… create a single regulatory agency with the authority to audit and examine the financial status of institutions, much as the Securities and Exchange Commission can examine publicly traded corporations.”

Leef (or the paper he references) recommends:

That the federal government stop relying on accreditation as the determinant of eligibility for federal student aid funds.

[Better would be a] replacement system that would be “far more outcomes-based” than the accreditation system, such as standardized national examinations in various disciplines that would indicate whether schools were really educating students or just going through the motions.

Both Leef and Carey have promising ideas, though their ultimate effectiveness remains untested. But clearly it’s time to do something else. Accreditation has become a waste, a very expensive bureaucracy that fails to ensure anything substantive.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer