The Inmates Running the Asylum?
which the “standards for accreditation, which vary by region, are based on an institution’s self-study of the extent to which the institution feels it has met its own purposes.”48 Needless to say, the government is not satisfied with this outcome. The Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education was highly critical of the system’s failure to provide “solid evidence, comparable across institutions, of how much students learn in colleges or whether they learn more at one college or another.”49 Even accreditors find this state of affairs unsatisfactory, with one accreditor complaining that “even though a focus on stu- dent learning assessment and outcomes needed to become more of a priority for us and institutions, we found that the ones we reviewed were repeatedly ‘just getting started.’”50 The lack of progress in this area is compelling evidence in favor of a fundamental restructuring of accreditation.
Gaining accreditation today is remarkably similar to gaining accreditation a century ago. While the list of inputs measured has changed somewhat due to technological and social developments, the core issue is essentially the same: is enough money being spent on a given list of inputs? The failure of this approach should be apparent if we acknowledge that the federal government is not providing in excess of $117 bil- lion per year to American colleges just so we can make sure that libraries are big enough and that college professors have Ph.D’s. The government—as well as the taxpayers it represents—expects to see a return on its investment in the form of substantial gains in knowledge and proficiency in a student’s field of study.
The rationale for public funding of American higher education hinges on the promotion of economic growth and equality of opportunity, the enhancement of graduates’ job prospects and life satisfaction, and a belief that higher education leads to a more politically and culturally engaged citizenry. The exist- ing processes that determine whether an institution is accredited and eligible for federal aid are inade- quate at measuring an institution’s effect on any of these purported rationales.
Continuing to measure only the inputs used and processes followed by colleges does nothing to gauge the value added knowledge their students acquire or the post graduate success they achieve, and there- fore cannot help provide meaningful public accountability. Thus, the accreditors have utterly failed to define appropriate measures of quality in both the 1952 to 1985 and the post-1985 eras.
Evaluation: Define (Appropriate) Measures of Quality. Prior to the federal government’s involvement in financing higher education, accreditation’s idea of setting measures of quality was essentially based on a set of inputs and a few processes. Although this helped to distinguish the haves from the have-nots in higher education, it did not serve a public accountability function, nor was it intended to do so. This cri- terion is therefore not applicable in the first two eras of accreditation.
However, accreditation became intertwined with federal aid beginning with the 1952 GI Bill, and it has continued to use similar standards, which have very little to do with student learning or outcomes. The accountability and assessment movements that began in 1985 have done very little thus far in moti-
Definition of Measures of Quality
TABLE 3 HISTORICAL PERFORMANCE IN THE DEFINITION OF MEASURES OF QUALITY CATEGORY
= 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
N o t e : N A = n o t a p p l i c a b l e , ( + ) = s u p e r b p e r f o r m a n c e F = failure. ,