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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 5 / 60





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A c c r e d i t a t i o n i n h i g h e r e d u c a t i o n o r i g i n a t e d a s a m e a n s o f c o m m u n i c a t i n g u s e f u l i n f o r m a t i o n a b o u t t h e q u a l i t y o f v a r i o u s i n s t i t u t i o n s o f h i g h e r e d u c a t i o n . Y e t , o v e r t h e p a s t h a l f c e n t u r accreditation has evolved into a system for determining eligibility for the receipt of funds from third parties, most notably the federal government, but also in many cases state governments or private philanthropies. y

If the nation were starting afresh on accreditation, we predict it would devise a radically different sys- tem than the one it has become over the past century. Would we have multiple regional accrediting agen- cies? We doubt it. Would the accreditors be private entities largely controlled by individuals themselves affiliated with the institutions that they certify? We doubt it. Would accreditation largely be “an-all-or- nothing” proposition, where institutions are simply “accredited” or “non-accredited” with few distinc- tions in between? We doubt it. Would an accrediting mechanism be permitted where key elements of the assessment are not available for public review? We doubt it. Would accrediting that sometimes empha- sizes inputs rather than outcomes be permitted? Again, we doubt it. In short, there are numerous char- acteristics of today’s system of accreditation that are subject to questioning and criticism.

Americans spend vast amounts of money buying houses, cars, and major appliances—yet none of these things are “accredited.” We have developed other means of providing information. For example, Consumer Reports, J.D. Powers and Associates, and Underwriters Laboratories all give consumers infor- mation and the products they are purchasing, and private home inspections by disinterested third par- ties help assure that real estate transactions truly represent what buyers and sellers expect. Why, then, do we “accredit” colleges and universities? There are legitimate reasons, but the presumption that current methods are optimal is misplaced.

The typical policy paper on accreditation does a fine job of detailing the history of the system and major issues that confront it today. It then usually concludes by sketching out some recommended reform. However, while it may point out a few areas in which the proposed reform would be an improve- ment over the current system, there is rarely any discussion about how such a reform is better than the alternatives, or what impact it would have in other areas.

This paper takes a slightly different approach. While throughout we do discuss some of the historical role of accreditation, our main focus is on evaluating the performance of the current system and evalu- ating possible reforms. Thus, it is suggested that readers have some prior familiarity with the history and practices of accreditation.

Part one presents our analysis of accreditation’s performance. Because its role and function in higher education has changed over time, we find it worthwhile to discuss the history of accreditation very briefly. We identify four eras of accreditation in order to assess both its effectiveness and its changing role over time. To facilitate our analysis, we have devised a rubric with which to evaluate accreditation and reform proposals. The first column lists the main categories that we feel the accreditation system should be eval- uated upon, including quality improvement, quality assurance, and promoting the health and efficiency of the higher education system. The second column breaks some of these categories into more refined


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