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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 15 / 60





15 / 60

Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

vating accreditors to define appropriate measures, including those to assess student learning, despite reg- ulation pushing them in that direction. We therefore believe that accreditation has failed in the task of defining appropriate measures of quality for both the 1952 to 1985, and post-1985 eras.

Certify Minimum Quality From a public policy perspective,“the overriding public interest in accreditation over the last 50 years has been defined in terms of protecting consumers as well as federal and state student grant and loan pro- grams from flagrant fraud and abuse.”51 In other words, accreditation is supposed to protect the country from funneling money to diploma mills, or at the very least, accreditation includes “the process of deter- mining the degree of quality which separates the acceptable from the ‘not quite acceptable.’”52

By giving the accrediting agencies a gatekeeper role in determining institutional eligibility for federal funds, a system accustomed to sorting colleges and helping them improve “inherited functions some- times beyond its scope and expertise.”53 The system nevertheless worked adequately at first, since there was a relatively small amount of federal money involved and the temporary nature of that money miti- gated attempts to game the system. The lack of sustained federal funding, as well as the input standards that many diploma mills couldn’t afford, combined to allow the accreditation system prior to 1965 to do a fairly good job in marginalizing diploma mills. It should be emphasized that it was not that the stan- dards set by the accreditors were well suited to ensuring a minimum quality for education, but rather that the input standards were often prohibitively costly for diploma mills (or any new college for that matter)

to acquire since federal funding was limited and temporary.

But between 1965 and 1985, the certification role of accreditation saw deterioration relative to past per- formance. Federal monies were massive and permanent, giving diploma mills an incentive to enter the sec- tor. Moreover, “rather than focusing on quality assurance for the public, which was what Congress intended, accreditors in fact view themselves as promoting institutional improvement, a role that the vol- untary system initially fulfilled.”54 In spite of their new role as gatekeepers of federal funding, “accreditors do not think of their primarily role as federal agents.”55 As James T. Rogers, former executive director of one of the accrediting agencies said, “We’ve never liked to view what we’ve been doing as being regula- tors.”56 This was problematic, since they were the primary regulators of higher education.

Needless to say, since accreditors would “rather be advisers than policemen,”57 they have largely ignored their role in certifying a minimum quality. One former president of Brown University noted as early as 1960 that the “accrediting procedure does not protect us from wretched and fraudulent institu- tions.”58 Accreditors “do not endeavor to assess the quality of individual programs or departments... If the accreditation system does not even attempt to examine the educational quality of individual pro- grams, what ground is there for assuming the ‘general quality’ of the institution?”59

While there were obviously problems providing certification, we would argue that accreditation still deserved an unsatisfactory rating (rather than outright failure) on this measure in the 1952–1985 era due

to its success (with help from direct government regulation) in marginalizing diploma mills in the ear- lier years. But the certification role of accreditors has deteriorated in the current era. Many observers complain that “accreditors have vague, widely varying standards and are reluctant to crack down on weak colleges.”60 This reluctance is largely due to the fact that eligibility for federal student aid is conditioned upon being accredited, so removal of accreditation would likely result in the death of the institution. Accreditors are so reluctant to take this step that “one looks in vain for instances where accreditation has been denied because of low educational value to students… Colleges and universities simply do not lose


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