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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 49 / 60





49 / 60

Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder

accreditation is that it is sometimes done by people who are less expert than those whom they are sup- posedly overseeing.”195

There are three reasons to suspect that accreditation staff and volunteers may not be up to the challenge of providing adequate quality assurance. First, universities themselves have become more complex, which makes establishing appropriate goals, strategies, and measures of success more difficult. Second, accredita- tion’s roles have also expanded to include the very different quality improvement and quality assurance roles, and some have reasonably suggested that “relying on volunteers to deliver consistently in these highly-spe- cialized arenas is unrealistic.”196 Third, the more emphasis there is on compliance based “bean counting,” the harder it is to “recruit innovative, technically active evaluators from industry and research universities.”197

There is also the issue of how frequently accreditation reviews occur. Typically, accreditation is granted for a period of 10 years. Even accreditors view this as insufficient, with one commenting that “in one two- day visit every 10 years, we couldn’t assess all aspects of the institution, particularly large comprehensives and major research universities.”198 While such a long cycle may have been appropriate in the past, when accreditors where more analogous to consultants, that is no longer the case now that they are gatekeep- ers. “As one observer asks, ‘How can teams of 8 to 20 people (depending on the region) visit a large, com- plex institution every 10 years for two days of campus interviews and assure that those universities are properly accountable?’”199 The answer is that it is not possible.

Facilitating Improvement vs. Providing Accountability: An Irreconcilable Conflict. Most of the criti- cisms of accreditation “flow largely from the fact that higher education accreditation seeks to do two totally different things: ensure a minimum level of quality… and encourage individual colleges to improve themselves.”200 Because the required tools and temperament of these tasks are so different, there is an irreconcilable conflict between facilitating improvement and providing accountability. “For the improvement paradigm, [there] is a posture of engagement and continuous improvement that seeks to build a culture of evidence… For the accountability paradigm, the predominant posture is one of insti- tutional compliance.”201 The former paradigm relies on subjective determinations made both internally and externally while the latter is reliant on objective determinations made by external groups.

Already, “The assessment pendulum has swung strongly in the direction of the accountability para- digm,”202 and this trend is likely to continue. When this happens, it leads to “creeping government con- trols, legal challenges, and growing tension between a focus on improvement and compliance with government requirements.”203 Many feel that the quality improvement role is undermined. As one accreditor put it, the emphasis on compliance

led to institutional fatigue and a developing sense on the part of institutions, especially the larger comprehensive ones, that all the investment in the accrediting process resulted in very little return on that investment or meaningful change. It became too often a time- and resource-consuming exercise to see if minimum standards were being met, and it had little lasting value. For smaller institutions, self-reviews often proved quite valuable, but even there the institutional investment was significant, and the question remained whether the value added was worth the investment made.204

Sylvia Manning, head of the North Central Association, suggested that with the current accreditation process, “The compliance role is so onerous and so dominates the process that, in too many cases, col- leges fail to get anything meaningful out of the improvement portion.”205


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