The Inmates Running the Asylum?
their accreditation because of a judgment by the accreditors that the curriculum is weak, the faculty poor and the students don’t learn much.”61 This reticence towards revoking accreditation has existed for more than fifty years.62
To get a sense for how reluctant accreditors are to act, note that between 2003 and 2008, the percent- age of community colleges being “sanctioned, or warned that their accreditation could be stripped, ranged from 0 to 6 percent,” and that “only one two-year institution [in California], Compton Commu- nity College, has ever lost its accreditation.”63 It is possible that Compton Community College was the only California community college to do an inadequate job educating its students, and that less than 6 percent of all community colleges are in danger of doing so. But this is unlikely, especially when one notes the constant warnings about the dangers of underfunding combined with the conventional wisdom that the sector has been underfunded year after year.
Indeed, “On the rare occasion that accreditors do suspend or terminate an institution’s accreditation, it isn’t due primarily to educational concerns. Typically, institutions are sanctioned because of financial short- comings,” as was the case with Southeastern University.64 Southeastern remained an accredited university for over two decades despite “perpetual dysfunction” and being “mired in obscurity, mediocrity, cronyism, and intermittent corruption.”As Kevin Carey put it,“Accreditation had come to mean evaluating yourself against standards of your own choosing in order to indirectly receive large amounts of free government money.”65 The result of which is “chronic failure at hundreds of colleges nationwide, obscure and nonselective institu- tions where low-income and minority students are more likely to end up with backbreaking student-loan debt than a college degree.”66 Southeastern finally lost accreditation in 2009, not for failing to educate its stu- dents, but for financial insolvency. However, for years the accreditors were reluctant to withdraw qualifica- tion and thereby deny student aid, since the university desperately needed the flow of cash to survive as an institution. Because nearly everything concerning accreditation is kept so secret, it is impossible to tell how many more Southeasterns are out there, how much federal financial aid money they are wasting, and how many students are victims of academic fraud.
While accreditation is rarely denied or revoked for educational reasons, there are institutions that are denied accreditation, so we know that the accreditors are providing certification of something. Unfortu- nately, that “something” has little relation to the quality of education provided. For instance, a 2006 study by the former president of Teacher’s College at Columbia University concludes that accreditation has failed to provide even a minimum standard for quality of education programs, and even those standards which accreditors have set up to measure quality are “misplaced and outdated,” allowing programs with low quality to receive their stamp of approval.67 As Leef and Burris document, “The accreditation system is not based on an evaluation of the results of an institution, but rather upon an evaluation of its inputs and processes. If the inputs and processes look good, acceptable educational quality is assumed. It is as if an organization decided which automobiles would be allowed to be sold by checking to make sure that each car model had tires, doors, an engine and so forth and had been assembled by workers with proper training— but without actually driving any cars.”68
The failure of accreditation to perform the certification function is increasingly apparent. In fact, the more experience one has with higher education, the less likely one is to believe that accreditation ensures meaningful educational standards. Respondents to the CHEA survey mentioned previously “who had attended college were more likely to think that educational programs must meet only minimal standards to be accredited… Those who had earned a degree were even more likely to believe that only minimal standards need be met.”69