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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 39 / 60





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Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

quality assurance role to be a significant benefit of an FDA-like system, it comes at too high a cost in terms of higher education’s overall health and efficiency. Relying on the government to perform the quality assur- ance role currently tasked to accreditors would be too much like curing the disease by killing the patient.

A Centralized Accreditor Accreditation is said to be an example of regulatory capture, which occurs when the supposedly regulated gain control of the regulatory process. Accreditation was started, funded and maintained by colleges, and is staffed largely by college employees, so it is perhaps not surprising that “any serious analysis of accred- itation as it is currently practiced results in the unmistakable conclusion that institutional purposes, rather than public purposes, predominate.”164

To address this problem, another proposal seeks to install a more centralized accreditor that is less beholden to the universities. There are two main variations of this proposal. The first is to create one national accreditor. The other seeks to recreate for higher education the regulatory structure of the finan- cial sector. In the financial sector, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), a government agency, has the authority to set accounting standards. However, for the past few decades, they have relied upon a private organization, the Federal Accounting Standards Board (FASB), to set the standards.165 A similar arrangement could be used in higher education, with the Department of Education or some agency tasked with determining institutional eligibility (or for recognizing accrediting agencies), but relying on a private organization to actually make the determination. Under either the sole accreditor or FASB model, the government would exercise more but not complete control over the accreditation system. At the same time, the institutions would exert less control. The best way to think about the likely implica- tions of this reform would be if the accreditors were less constrained by institutional pressure, and more constrained by governmental pressure.

We predict that the ultimate effects are likely to be in the same direction as under the previous gov- ernment model, but of lesser magnitude, since the centralized accreditor would be subject to more pres- sure from the institutions than the government would be.

What Would Improve? The new accreditation system would either voluntarily choose to focus more on the quality assurance aspects, or would be pressured into doing so by the government. This would yield improvements in adopting more appropriate measures of quality. It remains the case that some current and past accreditation officials were the main impetus in moving towards measures of outcomes and stu- dent learning, however reluctantly others have followed. The enforcement of minimum quality criteria would also likely see improvement. A centralized accreditor would be less reluctant to shut off funding for substandard colleges.

We would also expect an improvement in the quantity and quality of information available to the pub- lic. A centralized accreditor would still probably insist on non-disclosure for as much as possible, espe- cially information concerning self-studies and improvement efforts. But the government’s huge financial interest in higher education, and the resulting pressure to be more transparent and focus more on the quality assurance role would give the centralized accreditor both the motivation and the means to release more meaningful information about colleges. Moreover, because standards would be more consistent, institutional comparisons would be easier to make.

Somewhat counterintuitively, we would expect costs to decrease. The direct costs of setting up a national accreditor, or a national accreditor of accreditors would be higher than under the current system. But the


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