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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 12 / 60





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The Inmates Running the Asylum?

took up a more active roll in providing student aid in 1952, accreditation seemed to continue to perform its quality improvement function satisfactorily for a number of years. Finally, when allegations of federal financial aid abuse and waste became widespread in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government increased pressure on the accreditors to provide public accountability. Given the current views and actions of colleges and accreditors, we believe that one of the consequences of this pressure was to shift accreditors’ concerns from consultation to compliance, and that this harmed their quality improvement performance. We therefore conclude that accreditation’s performance in quality improvement has become unsatisfactory in the latest era.





Quality Improvement



= s a t i s f a c t o r y p e r f o r m a n c e , ( ) = u n s a t i s f a c t o r y p e r f o r m a n c e , a n d

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Quality Assurance

For the last six decades, accreditation has been tasked with providing public accountability for federal spending on higher education. Federal aid has grown remarkably over the years, rising from $1.7 billion in 1963-64 to $116.8 billion in 2008–09 (in constant 2008 dollars), a real increase of 10 percent per year.40 By providing a quality assurance function, accreditation is supposed to protect society from wasteful spending on fraudulent educational programs.

Defining appropriate measures of quality and certifying that colleges have met some minimum stan- dard of quality are necessary (but not necessarily sufficient) conditions for any system that hopes to reli- ably provide quality assurance. In addition, while it is theoretically possible to hold colleges accountable for their spending of public money without revealing much information to the public or policy makers, it is much more likely that a system with transparent processes and public reporting of results would be more effective in this regard.

Define (Appropriate) Measures of Quality The determination of reasonable measures of quality is a minimal requirement of any system hoping to provide a quality assurance role. In keeping with the stated rationale of providing a public accountabil- ity mechanism, these measures should be related to what it is that public money is funding.

Prior to 1952, there was considerably less public money involved, so accreditors did not have a role in public accountability per se. Thus, this category is largely not applicable to accreditation in the earliest era. This is not to say that accreditors of this era did not define standards, but merely that they were not defined with public accountability needs in mind. It is also useful to note that of the standards that were adopted, the vast majority were quantitative measures of inputs and financial resources, with a few standards pertaining to degree requirements or outcomes. Since the accreditors of that era were mostly concerned with distinguishing among classes of institutions, these were useful measures. Colleges that


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