The Inmates Running the Asylum?
Promote Efficiency Higher education, similar to other economic activities, needs to be efficient in order to remain viable. Regardless of how much of a benefit higher education provides, if the costs to achieve those benefits are prohibitively high, the higher education system will be ultimately unsustainable. To be effective, accredi- tation should not suppress innovation, serve as a barrier to entry, or impose unnecessary costs.
Don’t Suppress Innovation by Existing Colleges As tuition costs continue to soar, higher education is in dire need of innovation that can help lower costs. Many observers have suggested that higher education has remained resistant to the productivity gains experienced in most industries through the use of modern technology. In promoting an efficient higher education system, accreditation should not suppress innovations that have the potential to improve productivity.
Because accreditation was so new when it first emerged, many of the established colleges were essen- tially grandfathered in. Moreover, standards had yet to be developed that would restrict their freedom of action in any meaningful sense. Thus, prior to 1952, the accreditation system gets high marks for not restricting innovation by existing colleges.
From 1952 to 1985 there was an increase in the responsibilities placed on accreditation by the govern- ment as well as an increase in the need of institutions to obtain and retain accreditation. These concurrent trends placed enormous pressure on accreditors (in the form of a desire for consistency as well as to protect themselves legally) to adopt a quantitatively verifiable framework for assessing schools. Unfortunately, the only quantitative aspects of higher education that were easily verifiable tended to be inputs and processes. But if accreditation dictates the inputs to be used, and the manner in which they are to be used, then there is little room for institutions to innovate along these dimensions. Indeed, such requirements can be so “micro managing as to suffocate creativity [and] innovation, which is what is beginning to happen.”104
It is true that there are large swaths of higher education in which institutions are free to experiment and innovate however they see fit. But it is equally true that there are some areas where they are not free to do so. Part of this is attributable to a bias towards the status quo on the part of accreditors. Because accreditors must themselves be federally recognized (or “accredited”, as it were) they are afraid of losing that recognition. Brittingham notes that “recognition as a regulatory system is not friendly to experimen- tation by accreditors with new ways of doing business; any change an accreditor considers potentially threatens its federal recognition.”105 While this bias towards the status quo is certainly understandable on some level, it nonetheless leads to a system that sometimes suppresses innovation. This tendency towards the status quo is also evidenced within institutions themselves, as college administrators at times stifle innovations by faculty or others within an institution by claiming (spuriously) that such action would
threaten their accreditation.106
A prime example of accreditation stifling innovation is illustrated by engineering accreditation (per- formed by the American Board of Engineering and Technology, or ABET). A number of employers and educators had grown unsatisfied with the education being delivered in the nation’s engineering schools, and set about reforming old programs and designing new ones to improve the quality of education. But “institutions that attempted to develop more flexible and innovative programs were increasingly harassed in accreditation reviews and were forced to make their curricular requirements more restrictive to avoid
loss of accreditation. ABET had clearly become a stumbling block to reform well be characterized as a protector of the status quo.”108
a n d t h e a g e n c y “ c o u l d
Dissatisfied employers and colleges pressured ABET to reform and to focus more heavily on gauging