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An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation - page 8 / 60





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The Inmates Running the Asylum?

1936 to 1952: A Quality Improvement Role Is Added. Amidst growing criticism, one of the regional accreditors, the North Central Association (NCA), commissioned a report in 1936 that concluded that accreditation ought to be awarded based on a school’s “total pattern [presented] as an institution of higher education” and its ability to meet its stated educational mission.11 Following the report, NCA developed a qualitative approach that judged schools by their own institutional purposes, allowing for an institution that was deficient in one area, but with offsetting strengths in another, to still receive accred- itation. The other regional associations soon followed suit in developing qualitative mission-specific accreditation evaluations which would eventually evolve into the self-study that remains the dominant process used for accreditation to this day.12

By 1945, the North Central Association’s rhetoric had shifted from that of assuring high quality to that of “providing service” to its member institutions.13 During this time, accreditation increasingly sought to accomplish continued improvement in higher education rather than the rigid enforcement of universal standards.14 In doing so, a new mission for accreditation was added: In addition to sorting colleges by quality as before, it was now also supposed to help institutions improve.

1952 to 1985:A Quality Assurance Role Is Added. During the Second World War, Congress passed the orig- inal GI Bill in 1944, which provided veterans with financial assistance to pursue a college education at an institution of their choice, with the only limitation being that the institution be approved by its state edu- cation agency.15 As a result, very few restrictions were placed on where the veterans could spend the money, and there were reports of widespread abuse, resulting in heightened concern that too much of the money went to diploma mills that did not provide an adequate education. This led to a series of government inves- tigations and Congressional hearings that, when the next GI Bill came about (the 1952 Korean War GI Bill), intensified the desire for an enhanced quality control mechanism to determine institutional eligibility.16

This created something of a dilemma. While it was agreed that more quality control was needed, many in Congress and academia believed that the laissez faire attitude the government had historically taken towards higher education was wise, and that direct involvement by the government in determining insti- tutional eligibility would jeopardize this traditional source of strength. A compromise was reached where the government would rely on the private accreditors to determine institutional eligibility. The 1952 bill required the Commissioner of Education, Earl McGrath, to “publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies and associations he determines to be reliable authority as to the quality of training offered by an educational institution.” McGrath named the six current regional accreditation agencies to fulfill this quality control mechanism.17

In addition to their prior roles, accreditation was now tasked with a quality assurance role as well. This marked the beginning of accreditation’s partnership with the federal government in monitoring institutional quality, with the accreditors acting as the gatekeepers to federal funds. It was during this time that accredita- tion as we know it today began to take shape.“Between 1950 and 1965, the regional accrediting organizations developed and adopted what are considered today’s fundamentals in the accreditation process: a mission- based approach, standards, a self-study prepared by the institution, a visit by a team of peers who produced a report, and a decision by a commission overseeing a process of periodic review.”18

Although the GI Bill established the quality assurance role for accreditation, the amount of federal fund- ing for veterans was relatively modest by today’s standards, and temporary in nature. As a result, accredita- tion, while more attractive for colleges, was not entirely necessary to remain competitive. But with the passage of the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA), accreditation would become a near necessity. For the first


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