Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder
Evaluation: Certify Minimum Quality. As with the definition of appropriate measures of college qual- ity, the certification of minimum quality was not a function of accreditation prior to 1952. Again, it was the emergence of federal funding for higher education, and the reliance upon accreditors to function as gatekeepers that changed this. While accreditation has never been designed to perform this role ade- quately, it nevertheless did a satisfactory job for the first decade or so of the third era. The numerous requirements for costly inputs were fairly effective in deterring diploma mills from entering the field in a time of modest and temporary federal funding. Once federal funding became permanent and massive, however, diploma mills had an incentive to game the system, and were able to do so because the accred- itors continued to ignore their public accountability responsibilities and focus on the improvement role instead. We therefore rate their deteriorating performance from unsatisfactory in the era of 1952–1985 to outright failure in the current era.
Certification of Quality
TABLE 4 HISTORICAL PERFORMANCE IN THE CERTIFICATION 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. ,
Inform the Public Another important public function of accreditation is to provide information on colleges to the public and policy makers as well as current and prospective students. There are two primary concerns in regard to public information. The first addresses whether colleges are sorted by quality (however defined) in
such a way as to provide useful information. The second arose with federal funding, and asks whether the process itself is transparent enough to instill confidence in the decisions of the accreditors.
Prior to the establishment of federal financial aid programs, accreditation was completely voluntary. Because it was not universal, having accreditation meant something. Those institutions that were accred- ited by reputable accreditors stood out as better than those that were not (or were accredited by a lesser accrediting body). This provided useful information for students, as it served as a signaling device and functioned as an early ranking of colleges. And because accreditation was largely a private affair, trans- parency was not really an issue in this period. Thus, in the earlier two eras, we conclude that accredita- tion did a satisfactory job of providing the public with information on college quality.
Once the federal financial aid programs became established fixtures of the educational landscape, however, accreditation’s performance deteriorated. The primary reason is that because accreditation is now so important to an institution’s financial survival, it has become near universal. In other words, “Once a badge of distinction, accreditation has now become so commonplace as to be of negligible ben- efit to either educational consumers or the institutions themselves.”70 For example, Harvard has the same accreditor as Central Connecticut State University, though one suspects that there is a large difference between those two schools (as suggested by the more prominent college rankings guides which consis- tently place Harvard near or at the top but do not even rank Central Connecticut State). Indeed, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that “if students and parents were interested in trying to learn all