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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 11 / 60





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Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

some college administrators “often question an accrediting agency’s understanding of the specific circum- stances at an institution or the depth of the agency’s commitment to the institution’s own goals.”31

Overall, “many college officials believe they get little out of the standard process besides a stamp of approval. Administrators may spend years on a self-study to show that the college has met minimum requirements, only to see the document begin gathering dust within months of completion.”32 As Paula Lutomirski explained, “we produced this two-inch-thick document, and I don’t even have it on my shelf, because it’s not worth having.”33 This view is shared by many: “Former Rhodes College President James Daughdrill summed up the view of many college administrators when he said that accreditation is ‘an exercise in wasted time and money.’”34

When given the opportunity to act on these views, college administrators do not hesitate to follow through. If an institution already has regional accreditation, while state licensing requirements do not require a specialized accreditation, some universities choose to forgo the latter. For example, some of the best teacher education programs “tend not to pursue NCATE accreditation at all.”35

The actions of accreditors themselves serve as the second, and even more compelling, piece of evi- dence. A number of reforms that focus on enhancing quality improvement of accreditation have been initiated by accreditors in recent years. If the accreditation system was already performing its function well, there would be no reason for these reforms to be pursued.

For example, Sylvia Manning, the head of the largest regional accreditor, observed that “the compli- ance role is so onerous and so dominates the process that, in too many cases, colleges fail to get anything meaningful out of the improvement portion.”36 Similarly, Ralph Wolff, the head of the accreditor over- seeing the Western states, wrote of a “developing sense on the part of institutions, especially the larger comprehensive ones, that all the investment in the accrediting process resulted in very little return on that investment or meaningful change. It became too often a time- and resource-consuming exercise to see if minimum standards were being met, and it had little lasting value.”37

To their credit, both of the accrediting organizations mentioned above have been experimenting with new processes that seek to “separate ‘compliance’ from ‘improvement,’”38 with generally positive results. As UCLA’s Chand R. Viswanathan stated, “I had gone through accreditation previous times, and all you do is count the number of courses and what kind of requirements they satisfy… all these things are already worked out in an ongoing institution’… The new process, he says, focused on U.C.L.A. officials’ real concerns ‘and helped them reach their goals faster.’”39

While some griping about the regulator by the regulated is to be expected, the loudly repeated state- ments about problems, as well as the actions that accreditors are taking to fix perceived weaknesses lead us to the conclusion that accreditation is doing an unsatisfactory job in the quality improvement dimen- sion in the latest era. Again, that conclusion is tempered by the reality that much of the process of accred- itation remains hidden. For an exercise in providing information, accreditation is mired in excessive secrecy and lack of transparency.

Evaluation: Quality Improvement. Prior to 1936, accreditation played no role in the quality improve- ment function for higher education. Starting around 1936, accreditation adopted a mission-based approach that began focusing on quality improvement. As this was prior to the involvement of any fed- eral financing of higher education, submitting to accreditation remained a voluntary act on the part of the colleges. Given that accreditation continued to grow, we suspect that its performance in the quality improvement role was satisfactory in the years between 1936 and 1952. Even after the federal government


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