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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 32 / 60





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The Inmates Running the Asylum?

accreditation reports to be published would greatly increase transparency at little cost, especially if rea- sonable decisions are made about what is to be disclosed.


Quality Improvement: Inform the Public:


Note: (+) represents an improvement in performance in this category, (–) represents a deterioration in performance in this category.

Move Away from Binary Decisions Another needed reform would be to move away from the binary yes/no judgment. The current system “works like a light switch—either it’s on or it’s off… Accreditors would greatly improve their worth to the public if they would delve into the strengths and weaknesses of colleges and universities rather than just scanning to make sure that they fit the general profile of acceptability.”146 In other words, no mechanism exists to signal the level of quality or to allow meaningful comparison among accredited institutions. Moving away from the binary yes/no decision would change that. For instance, institutions could be explicitly evaluated on a dozen or so categories, with accreditation requiring sufficiency in 8 or 9 and plans for improvement in the rest. Or, numerical rankings could be developed in various categories of inquiry, with a minimum aggregate score needed to be accredited.

One of the main benefits of this reform would be an increase in the information on college quality provided to the public. “If there were levels of accreditation, institutions would compete for honored spots,”147 and the winners of this competition would be easily identifiable. The additional information provided by a tiered accreditation system would lead to a better public understanding of standards and quality, and the different levels of accreditation would provide an important insider counterweight to external college rankings, such as those by US News and World Reports and Forbes.148

Indeed, we would argue that the importance of college rankings in consumer decisions is likely directly a result of the failure of accreditors to offer a meaningful alternative. People don’t want to know whether Slippery Rock State University is “acceptable” (accredited), but how it compares with compara- ble peer schools, and rankings such as those of US News & World Report and Forbes provide them with that information.

This has not happened essentially because colleges, who largely still control the accreditation process, do not want information released that would hurt them competitively. They perceive it in their institu- tional interest to minimize knowledge about the quality of the educational offerings of colleges. That, however, is clearly inimical to the public interest.

In addition, with a non-binary, more precise, evaluation system, accreditors would have a greater abil- ity to sanction colleges and enforce minimum quality requirements. Under the current system, “Their decisions are so starkly up or down that, as a consequence, they hardly ever deny accreditation. As a reg- ulatory tool, they are about as effective as a sledgehammer.”149 This would likely change if we had more distinct levels of accreditation that indicated different levels of quality.

It is possible that innovation would also be enhanced. An “experimental” category of accreditation could be made available that granted the students of promising new ventures access to financial aid, with the results of the new venture being evaluated for effectiveness after a set number of years. Since the


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