The Inmates Running the Asylum?
The decentralized nature of accreditation, combined with a lack of transparency, makes it difficult to evaluate the system’s success in accomplishing its quality improvement goals. Nevertheless, it is possible to reach reasonable conclusions about the system’s performance over the years.
The quality improvement function is not applicable in the pre-1936 era. During this time, accredita- tion existed essentially only to distinguish colleges by quality, and the quality improvement role had not yet emerged as a major focus. After 1936, accreditors increasingly introduced and focused on the quality improvement function. While it is difficult to say with certainty, there is reason to believe that accredita- tion was largely successful along this dimension in the 1936 to 1952 era. Because the system was still entirely voluntary, the accrediting agencies were presumably providing sufficient benefits in terms of quality improvement to justify the costs to the member colleges.22 If they were not, rational college lead- ers would not have opted to expend the time and resources needed to gain and retain accreditation. Thus, prior to 1952, we are inclined to agree with Mills that there was “little question that accreditation…was valuable in the early years of [the twentieth] century” in terms of improving educational quality.23
This reasoning is rendered moot for the later eras, as the accreditors were assigned the gatekeeper function in 1952, and especially once federal money for financial aid dramatically increased in 1965. Whereas in earlier years colleges would only take part in accreditation if the benefits (e.g. signaling qual-
ity and/or helping the institution) outweighed the costs, accreditation was now viewed as a near neces- sity, regardless of its benefits in these dimensions.
Nevertheless, it appears that accreditation continued to perform satisfactorily as a quality improve- ment mechanism in the 1952 to 1985 era. This is evident because accreditors were given remarkable free- dom of action within their new gatekeeper role, and for the most part, they choose to ignore their new role and continue to focus on the improvement role, though some during this period argued quite vocally that accreditation did not facilitate the “pursuit of excellence” by institutions.24
The rise of the accountability and assessment movement in the most recent era has resulted in accredi- tors coming under increasing pressure to emphasize their public accountability role. This has increasingly led to the development and enforcement of standards that emphasize compliance over consultation. One accreditor lamented the fact that many of those serving on committees have “imbedded in their minds the idea of accreditation as a compliance mechanism.”25 In our opinion, this has put considerable downward pressure on the performance of accreditors in the quality improvement role, though as noted before, it is difficult to evaluate how well accreditation actually performs due to the secrecy of the enterprise.
A decent argument can be made that accreditation is still successful in the quality improvement role. Some “college and university presidents identify accreditation as the key moving force behind strategic planning.”26 In addition, accreditation “provides an occasion for institutions and programs to engage in a sustained and serious process of self-examination,”27 with a CHEA survey indicated that 73% of those surveyed viewed “the opportunity to examine institutions and programs through self-study” as a benefit of accreditation, and that 53% viewed “gaining external feedback on performance that can be used for improvement” as a significant benefit.28
However, a compelling case can be made that accreditation is not as successful in fostering quality improvement as it may have once been. This case rests on two main pieces of evidence.
The first is the numerous statements and actions by college administrators expressing the view that accreditation adds “little value to higher education.”29 “While accreditors view the accreditation process as an ‘investment,’ institutions often view it as a significant cost with little return on investment.”30 Some col- lege leaders view the newfound compliance mentality as obstructing the improvement role. For instance,