Part 2: Reforms of and Replacements for Accreditation
In this section, we will discuss several ideas for reform of the existing accreditation system, as well as several alternative systems that could potentially replace accreditation in the role of providing quality assurance.
Publishing Accreditation Reports Requiring accrediting bodies to publish reports detailing their findings is one common reform option. Under the current system, accreditors do not make their assessments of universities publicly available. Generally, the information released only indicates whether or not an institution has received accredita- tion. Since nearly every college has accreditation, this is not very informative. Nor does it inspire confi- dence in accreditation decisions. In the words of one former accreditor, “The secrecy of peer review has actually become counterproductive in terms of credibility with the public.”142
While technically private agencies, accrediting bodies are providing public functions, particularly as they pertain to publicly supported institutions of higher learning. In many states, open records laws and other legislation is designed to provide transparency in government. Large amounts of public funds are used, even at most private institutions, so the insistence on transparency through publishing reports seems well placed.
The more expansive goal of providing the public with information on the finances, operating proce- dures, external evaluation and learning outcomes is urgently needed in higher education, and the achievement of that goal would be greatly enhanced if accreditors would make more information avail- able to the general public. Relatively independent assessments of the strengths and weakness of individ- ual institutions would allow for more informed consumer and public policy decisions. As the system functions today, accreditation does very little, if anything, to assist either group in making informed deci- sions concerning higher education.
The main downside to increased transparency is that colleges would become less forthcoming in their dealings with accreditors. As David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Col- leges and Universities said, there are worries “that constructive criticism in the reports, designed to spur improvements, would be taken out of context in press reports and characterized as a major deficiency.”143 This leads “some accreditation officials to fear that more public disclosure will result in: an adversarial, rather than collegial, accreditation process; a smothering of trust critical to self-analysis; unwanted press coverage of school problems; and schools withholding information.”144 This could diminish the effective- ness of accreditors along the quality improvement dimension, since they cannot help colleges to address their weaknesses if the colleges are deliberately hiding them in fear of negative publicity.
In our view, the objection that publishing accreditation reports might embarrass the institution is overblown and is trumped by the great public benefit that publication would yield. Shouldn’t weaknesses in these institutions be exposed to public scrutiny? Since third parties—especially taxpayers—fund much of higher education, does not the public have a right to know how what are essentially governmental- mandated observers assess these institutions?
Fundamentally, “Unless the system produces sufficient data in a transparent manner with the capac- ity to make public comparison of results with other practitioners, it will ultimately fail.”145 Requiring