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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 47 / 60





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Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

Another possibility is that the reliance on peer review encourages accreditors to ignore their role as gatekeepers, and continue to pursue their traditional role as advisers. Since accreditation is essentially run by the colleges themselves, there is a large dose of self-regulation involved. But “when the people who decide what constitutes academic quality will themselves be judged on academic quality, it’s no wonder that the bar is set low.”180 Nor is it surprising that the system is “premised upon collegiality and assis- tance, rather than requirements that institutions meet certain standards (with public announcements when they don’t).”181

Perhaps accreditors are essentially acting as a cartel, seeking to restrict entry into the sector without imposing too much of a burden on existing cartel members. This can be accomplished by defining and enforcing detailed standards that existing members can already meet, such as classroom space and library size, but that new entrants would find prohibitively costly. If this is the case, standards would not be imposed for anything that would impose more costs on existing colleges than on new entrants. While perhaps a bit too harsh, this theory could explain the presence of detail input requirements combined with the complete lack of standards for relatively straightforward things such as the definition of a credit hour and much more complex things such as learning outcomes. Note that the cartel theory does not explain why accreditation requirements continue to expand past the point necessary to keep out new entrants, though a public choice theory offers one plausible reason for that.

Regardless of the reason, the end result is that accreditation fails to deliver on the quality assurance front. We are left with a system that is described as “a hopeless mess,”182 and the “the Death Valley of the life of the mind.”183 It is a “crazy-quilt of activities, processes and structures that is fragmented, arcane, more historical than logical… [and one that] is not meeting the expectations required.”184

Massive Federal Subsidies Will Continue The next crucial factor driving our conclusion is that the federal government will continue to massively fund higher education through its financial aid programs. Federal spending for financial aid alone was $117 billion in 2008–2009, almost double what it was a decade ago in real terms.185 With many, includ- ing the current administration, arguing that the country needs many more college graduates, there is lit- tle reason to expect the upward trend in this figure to reverse or cease.186

A Different System of Quality Assurance Will Be Forthcoming Given the fact that the current accreditation system does not provide adequate quality assurance and that the federal government will continue to heavily finance higher education, it seems reasonable to assume that at some point a new quality assurance mechanism will be imposed on higher education. This belief stems from the conclusion that the accountability movement is not a fad, especially in light of the grow- ing public interest in higher education that is to be expected in any industry that is so heavily financed by the taxpayers.

There are legitimate concerns about the quality of higher education. Studies show a decline in stu- dent effort, and “employers often complain that the college graduates they hire have little proficiency in the most fundamental skills—the ability to write clearly, to understand written instructions, and to do simple math.”187 There is a growing desire to determine what students learn and know. But to date, efforts to do so have been blocked by a chorus of colleges and associations asserting that it would infringe on institutional autonomy. While this is a legitimate concern, “It is somewhat disingenuous for higher education to ask for—and receive—billions of federal dollars without expecting concomitant


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