The current system of higher education accreditation is a barrier to market entry, ineffective in ensuring colleges properly educate students, and an example of good intentions gone wrong. In other words, it’s yet another failed government regulatory scheme. The result has been increased numbers of students who are indoctrinated by liberals, incapable of reasoning, and unfamiliar (if not hostile) to the Judeo-Christian Western tradition.
Recently, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) proposed reforms to accreditation that would require the U.S. Department of Education to “develop new certificate pathways (like employer-based apprenticeships and digital boot camps) that would be eligible for Pell Grant support.”
Hawley is right to begin to consider reforming accreditation, but when the process, burdens, and problems of accreditation are understood clearly, it becomes apparent that a more thorough reform of the accreditation is necessary.
Today accreditors are the gatekeepers for federal funds.
Federal involvement in higher education began after World War II. Thanks to the generous support of the G.I. Bill which helped our brave soldiers, seamen, and airmen, millions of veterans were able to use the program to attend college. In order to insure that taxpayer dollars were not being wasted, however, a system of accountability was necessary.
At first, accreditation was voluntary and the amount of money provided by the federal government to institutions of higher education was relatively small. That has changed. Federal money now constitutes a large percentage of institutional budgets and colleges must be accredited by federally approved accreditors in order to receive these monies.
Problems with Accreditation
The six regional accrediting agencies have an incestuous relationships with the colleges and universities they are supposed to oversee. Many, if not most are staffed by employees of the very institutions they are supposed to oversee. There is little incentive to punish failing schools.
The process to even become an accreditor is a grueling one. It includes an arduous interview, a narrative of the agency’s standards, and the application must be approved by the Education Department. The National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity then makes a recommendation. Finally, federal education officials decide on the application. This extensive, exhaustive, and formidable process provides a high bar to the entry of new accreditors.
Once an accrediting agency has itself been approved it is then able to provide either programmatic or school accreditation. In order for colleges to achieve this they are required to submit to an in-depth review of itself, allow for on-site evaluations, and continued monitoring by the agency.
The current system insulates institutions from market competition. It makes it difficult for new institutions, innovative programs, or online courses to make headway because of the onerous burdens they must meet. Additionally, so long as the cash flows and students attend, there is little financial incentive to ensure positive outcomes for graduates or strive to provide a thorough education.
Barriers to Entry
The current accreditation process acts as a barrier to entry to new institutions and thereby stifles service, innovation, and growth. This system protects currently established traditional colleges that may not be equipping students for human flourishing, successful careers, or their civic duties while preventing new actors from entering the market to offer quality education in innovative and cost-effective ways.
It is a rigid system providing a few agencies immense power while burdening institutions with additional bureaucratic red tape and the costs associated with complying with said regulations.
The system of de facto federal accreditation has not ensured a quality education for students. There are far too many students graduating without the skills necessary for the workforce.
What the system does do is provide false market signals to parents and children who assume that because the institution is accredited it must therefore provide an education worthy of tuition and tax dollars. The system provides a high barrier to entry while at the same time failing to ensure that institutions provide a quality education.
Once an institution is accredited, it is almost impossible for it to lose that accreditation.
Accreditors have rigid systems and require months to years of advance notice before changes can be made. For institutions attempting to compete in the 21st century such advance notice is ridiculous. These institutions need to be able to innovate along with the times in order to take advantage of advances in technology and respond to the market.
There are several reforms that could be made regarding higher education reform. First, allow state governments to accredit colleges and universities within their state in a way similar to the fashion states may accredit charter schools. Second, allow organizations to accredit certain departments. This would be like Boeing certifying the aerospace program at the University of Colorado in Boulder or the American Political Science Association accrediting a Ph.D. in politics. Giving states and industries the power to accredit institutions will break up the higher education monopoly.
Accreditation is a necessary and simple place to start reforming higher education. Its original purpose was to ensure federal taxpayer money is not wasted. The process requires agencies to be accredited by the U.S. Education Department and these agencies in turn provide the accreditation for institutions. Today, this is vital for institutions to receive Title IV money—but note that nowhere is it today imagined that the goal is a good education. This is about federal dollars, plain and simple.
Accreditation is a relatively new phenomenon in higher education. It has failed to deliver what it promised. It has not ensured educational quality, has difficulty measuring the results of accreditation, undermines institutional autonomy and control, imposes additional costs which must be passed on, and creates a monopoly stifling entry and innovation.
While reformers often talk about cost, quality, and job outcomes, accreditation rarely comes up, despite its systemic influence on all of those other issues. It’s time for that to change. Breakup the regional monopolies offering accreditation and we will begin to feel the positive ripple effects of that reform.