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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 29 / 60





29 / 60

Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

are the accreditors that evaluate specific programs or fields, and they often come to the conclusion that the institution is shortchanging whatever field they represent. This is unsurprising, given that “special- ized accreditors often attempt to benefit faculty members in particular disciplines—at the expense of broader institutional needs.”132 As John V. Lombardi, the president of the University of Florida com- plained, “They blackmail us… If they say your department of astrophysics needs 12 spaceships and you have only 10, you had better get the other two… You take the money from the history department because it doesn’t have an accrediting lobby to protect it.”133

Specialized Accreditors. “The most egregious example” of a specialized accreditor acting in the interests of the field rather than the institution is the American Bar Association. “Many of the ABA accreditation rules have only gossamer connections to the quality of legal education,” but that hasn’t prevented the ABA from insisting on all types of requirements that while costly to satisfy, yield no educational benefit. Many of these requirements “have a laser-like focus on the perquisites of being a law professor—down to spec- ifying the number of square feet in each faculty member’s office.”134 In the 1990s, the ABA went so far as to dictate the salaries of law professors until the Justice Department wrangled a consent decree directing the ABA “to concern itself with academic quality instead of resources.”135

Because of the incessant calls for more resources in their particular area, the specialized accreditors are largely “viewed as a guild designed to protect the guild.”136 In the words of Jon Provost, “you can get a fair picture of the world of specialized accreditation by imagining 250 or so would-be ABAs, each carp- ing for a finer grade of ivory in its part of the tower.”137

This is problematic, since the “misplaced priorities” of accreditors often results in “driving up costs or reallocating (or misallocating) institutional resources.”138 For instance, Peter Magrath, former presi- dent of the University of Missouri recalled when “the accrediting committee from the American Bar Association insisted that we should have a new building. The problem was that you had people making decisions about the use of university resources who didn’t have an overall perspective.”139 They were insisting on a new building without knowing if that was in fact the best use of the university’s scarce resources.

All too often, the outcome of accreditation in general and specialized accreditation in particular is to pressure colleges to spend more money, often inappropriately. As one accreditor acknowledged, “To read [accreditation] reports in which time and again, teams called for institutions to spend more money— often for physical facilities, libraries, or faculty—but hardly ever were these recommendations connected to improving the outcomes of the learning experience. We assumed that this result would occur but never verified that the changes had had this effect.”140 Spending on inputs is continually encouraged, and “peer- institution analyses… showed that each new expenditure was ‘appropriate’.”141 Yet at no point is it explained how the additional spending will improve student learning nor are any actual effects evaluated after the spending occurs. Needless to say, this relentlessly drives up the cost of college without improv- ing learning.

Evaluation: Don’t Impose Unnecessary Costs. The costs of accreditation can be broken up into direct and indirect costs. The direct costs of accreditation are, and have always been, low. Prior to 1952, the indi- rect costs were low as well, since membership was voluntary. Since then, however, the indirect costs have become a more pressing problem. The tragedy is that colleges are currently required to spend massive amounts of money on things that have never been shown to lead to higher student learning.


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