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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 33 / 60

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Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

results of the evaluation would not imperil the rest of the institution, new and existing colleges would be more willing to try new things.

The main drawback of such a proposal is that in the absence of reliable measures of student learning, accreditors would likely default to their input- and process-based criteria. Thus, a tiered system would likely evolve into a caste-like system where institutional expenditure is the main determinant of the type of accreditation granted, improperly giving the impression that some institutions are of higher quality merely because they spend more. This would increase indirect costs, as institutions would face another incentive to match the spending of colleges in the highest rated tier.

Overall, this is a promising reform, even more so if combined with an emphasis on basing decisions on student learning or other outcomes. Moving towards some uniform national indicators of academic per- formance and measures of “value added” by the university experience would seem highly appropriate.

TABLE 12 THE EFFECTS OF MOVING AWAY FROM BINARY DECISIONS

Certify quality: Inform the Public:

+ +

Don’t suppress innovation by existing colleges: Don’t impose unnecessary costs:

+

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

Increase Competition Among the Accreditors Institutions have virtually no choice as to whom will do general institutional accreditation, as they are forced to use the agency in their region. The exception is the option to pursue national accreditation, yet this path has a stigma of being inferior. Some critics of accreditation have thus described the regional accreditation system as cartel-like, with each accreditor granted a regional monopoly with a guaranteed market for customers without having to provide much benefit.150 As a result, there is little to no competi- tion between accreditors for the right to certify a college or university as eligible for federal student aid.

Allowing colleges to seek accreditation from any approved provider in the country would likely result in colleges soliciting bids from a number of agencies who would compete to provide accrediting services for each institution. This would likely enhance performance in regard to their improvement role since the exit option for colleges would give accreditors a greater incentive to provide useful advice and services.

Whether this competition results in better measures of quality is open to debate. Some believe it would likely result in “a troubling form of competition—competition for the lowest standards.”151 Others believe that “schools that wanted to differentiate themselves by virtue of their high standards, serious teaching, sound curriculum and so forth might seek out selective accreditors whose certification would be a mark of distinction.”152 It is likely that there is some truth to both of these views. One consequence is that there would likely be a decline in the certification of quality, as at least some accreditors would engage in a race to the bottom. However, the differentiation of accreditors would provide useful infor- mation, since accreditors who engaged in race to the top would offer a mark of distinction to member colleges. A good analogy would be academic journals. While there are certainly some journals with low standards, any given field has a handful of top journals with high standards, and academics publishing in those journals are distinguished from those that don’t.

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