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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 13 / 60





13 / 60

Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

could afford vast libraries, credentialed teachers, etc. were quite different from those that could not.

Once accreditation assumed the gatekeeper function in 1952, this criterion became very important in ensuring public accountability. The methods used were developed ad hoc, and for the most part, the accreditors reverted to a reliance on measures of inputs. To get accredited one basically had to mimic other colleges in terms of input usage. While it was perhaps understandable for the accrediting agencies to adopt superficial standards initially, when public funding was both limited and temporary, the new federal funding initiatives of the 1960s required much improved oversight. However, the accrediting agencies failed to deliver.

The main reason for this failure is that the system relies too heavily on colleges to self-regulate. For example 83% of the board for Middle States Commission on Higher Education is comprised of people that work for institutions that they then accredit. Similar numbers are just as pervasive in the other regional accreditors. The mere fact that accreditors were given the public accountability role didn’t change the fact that accrediting agencies were started by colleges to serve their own interests. One might even view accreditation as a “cartel” made up of various participants with the goal of restricting compe- tition from non-members of the cartel. Ultimately, it’s not surprising that “a system that is created, main- tained, paid for and governed by institutions is necessarily more likely to look out for institutional interests.”41 One of the ways in which they do so is by keeping standards low: “when the people who decide what constitutes academic quality will themselves be judged on academic quality, it’s no wonder that the bar is set low.”42

It is undeniable that over the years, the accreditors have adopted some measures of quality; however, they have too often adopted inappropriate, and in some cases counterproductive, measures. There are two main problems with the accreditors’ measures.

First, many of their measures focus on the wrong things. Accreditation is obsessed with inputs. “For decades, universities and colleges have wanted to define academic quality in terms of resources: faculty scholarship and degrees, the depth and breadth of curricular offerings, and the presence of topflight lab- oratory, library, and like facilities,”43 and accreditors have been the willing enforcers of this desire. As Mal- colm Gillis, president of Rice University lamented, ‘’the accreditors are not interested in what or how the students learn, but how many square feet of classroom space we have per student.’’44 In addition, accred- itors have from time to time imposed standards for non educational matters, such as course loads, pro- fessor salaries, and diversity. It should go without saying that just because a university spends enough money on libraries or research, or has “low enough” teaching loads does not guarantee that it is provid- ing an education worth the public’s (or even the student’s personal) investment.

The second problem with the accreditors’ measures is one of omission. Measures simply do not exist for crucially important aspects of higher education. There is a complete lack of standards for fundamentally important aspects of higher education such as student learning and outcomes for graduates. There is “a growing consensus on the need to measure student learning. This requires defining what students should know and be able to do and providing evidence that this has been accomplished.”45 But “the regional accrediting commissions have historically refused to define minimum standards… The Regionals currently have no mechanism for assuring adherence to minimum threshold standards across the institutions they accredit.”46 As one faculty member observed,“we are so wedded to a definition of quality based on resources that we find it extremely difficult to deal with the results of our work, namely student learning.”47

Since 1992, accreditors have been required to collect evidence of student learning, but the college lobby has ensured that these are self designed assessments. Thus we are left in the peculiar position in


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