The Accreditation Reform Maze

Most people in higher education thinks it’s time to change something about accreditation. The existing system, whereby a group of college administrators audit the finances and structures of other colleges in order to certify them for eligibility for federal financial aid, is expensive, inefficient, and doesn’t really do a good job ensuring college quality.

But fixing it might be worse. According to an article by Eric Kelderman in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

A report issued on Thursday by a panel of college presidents and leaders of accrediting organizations, convened by the American Council on Education, offers evidence of how hard it will be to find agreement on what those changes should be. The group comprised more than two dozen members, including representatives of the nation’s six regional accreditors, presidents of two-year and four-year colleges, both for-profit and nonprofit, and organizations that study or advocate for accreditation.

The report lays out the challenges facing the American system of ensuring academic quality and presents six broad principles on which members of the group found common ground.

The principles include such vagaries as increasing “the centrality of evidence about student success and educational quality” and seeking “common terminology, promoting cooperation and expanding participation.”

The main problem here is that various critics of existing accreditation can’t agree on how to reform the system.

Two common change areas critics often look to when considering college accredition have to do with seat time, how institution awards academic credit, and success measures, how to determine if an institution is doing a good job.

Most agree that awarding credit by amount of time a student has spent in a classroom is an ineffective way to measure student learning. But traditional institutions resist change in this area for fear it will open the system to weaker learning measures, not to mention scams.

Similarly, those involved understand that the methods used to measure college quality, like faculty with terminal degrees and research laboratory spending, don’t really measure if a school is any good. But while traditional institutions might look to graduation rates to signal quality, community colleges and other institutions serving the poor understandably resist this measure, since it would make them look worse. Kelderman:

Despite frequent and strong disagreements, the conversations between the college presidents and the leaders of the accrediting organizations were civil, [University of Richmond President Edward] Ayers said. But as a result, the report focuses on bedrock principles that all sides found acceptable, rather than providing specific policy recommendations.

The trouble is that a report that “focuses on bedrock principles that all sides found acceptable” is a report that doesn’t contain much useful information and won’t be much of a call to action. It’s basically a recipe for no change

Check out the report here.

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