Part 3: The Case for Replacing Accreditation
hile we have determined that commonly recommended reforms of accreditation would be W l a r g e l y b e n e f i c i a l , t h e y r e a l l y d o n o t g o f a r e n o u g h . R a t h e r , w e b e l i e v e i t i s p r e f e r a b l e t o r e p l a c e a c c r e d i t a t i o n a s t h e p r o v i d e r o f q u a l i t y a s s u r a n c e . M o s t o f A m e r i c a n e c o n o m i c l i f e t h r i v e s w e l without accreditation—why not higher education? l
We want to emphasize that “no completely satisfactory solution to the eligibility problem exists.”172 With that in mind, it should be acknowledged that some claim the status quo is the most desirable of the possible systems. The argument is essentially that there is no way to adequately provide quality assurance without wrecking the higher education system. Currently, the consensus needed to rely on a qualifica- tions framework or a certification based system is lacking, so only direct government determination and involvement in colleges’ decisions could hope to establish and enforce adequate quality, but this would destroy university autonomy, diversity, and innovation.
If this were the case, it truly would be better to settle for the status quo, since it manages to somewhat limit the extent of diploma mills, doesn’t restrict institutional autonomy as much as direct government involvement would, and is cheap as well. However, this case relies on higher education’s lobbyists success- fully fighting off governmental desires for accountability indefinitely, and is therefore unlikely to be a stable outcome, as evidenced by even its defenders descriptions of it as “schizophrenic”173 and “fragile.”174 Argu- ments for the status quo essentially give up on trying to nudge higher education’s‘establishment’ (headquar- tered around DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C.) from accepting reforms that are in the national interest even though they might threaten the narrow interests of individual higher education participants.
Given the documented problems and the inherent instability of the current system, it is wise to seri- ously consider alternatives. Indeed, we believe that accreditation in its current form needs to be aban- doned entirely. This conclusion follows from the following observations.
Accreditation Does Not Currently Provide Sufficient Quality Assurance The first observation that leads us to believe that accreditation is in need of drastic reform is our assess- ment that it does an inadequate job in providing quality assurance. In their role as gatekeepers, accredi- tors are supposed to ensure that federal funds are used only at valid educational institutions. To do so, at a minimum, accreditors would need to establish appropriate measures of quality, certify the quality of colleges based on those measures, and provide the public with information on college quality. Accredita- tion does none of these things. In fact, accreditation lets “each institution or program [establish] its own goals and [select] its own metrics through which to assess them.”clxviii This is analogous to letting drug makers determine if new medicines are safe and effective—the outcome is not guaranteed to be bad, but there is nothing stopping it from being so. The bottom line is that accreditation does not define appro- priate measures of quality, does not certify that colleges meet minimum levels of quality, and does not provide enough useful information to the public or policy makers to enable them to hold institutions accountable. It therefore fails to fulfill the quality assurance role that it has been assigned.