Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder
time, the federal government was establishing massive and permanent funding for higher education, and any school that wanted access to those funds had to be approved by the new gatekeepers: the accreditors.
The massive and permanent expansion of federal funding would significantly change the dynamics of higher education. The federal government’s involvement in financing higher education created an incentive to try and “game” the system by establishing substandard colleges, since once a college becomes accredited, federal money would continue to flow in year after year. Some colleges started to succeed in gaming the sys- tem, a task made easier by the fact that the accrediting agencies continued to see their primary role not as certifying quality for the public, but as helping the institutions improve. The associated scandals, especially high student loan default rates, would help give rise to the accountability movement in the mid 1980s.
Post-1985: The Rise of the Accountability and Assessment Movement. Concerns about the apparent decline in the quality of education, in addition to rising student loan default rates and a growing number of allegations of fraud and abuse of the federal financial aid programs gave rise to the accountability and assessment movement.19 While accountability and assessment as concepts relating to higher education have been around for a long time, Peter T. Ewell dates their emergence as a serious public policy consider- ation to around 1985.20 This movement would produce new government initiatives aimed at both colleges and the accreditors which were designed to better protect the public’s investment in higher education.
A few voluntary changes by accreditors did not alleviate political pressure to eliminate instances of abuse and reign in growing default rates, failures that Congress at least partially attributed to accredita- tion. There was some consideration of severing the tie between accreditation and federal financial aid in light of the perceived failure of accreditation, but rather than taking this action, Congress responded with the 1992 HEA reauthorization that created new regulations for colleges and accreditors. There were lim- itations placed on distance learning, the maximum percentage of a college’s budget that could come from federal aid, and new quality assurance responsibilities for the accreditors, such as student learning assess- ment requirements.21
To many observers, the regulations have proven largely ineffective in preventing fraud and waste of federal funding, with the for-profit sector receiving considerable criticism. At the same time, the accred- itors have resisted attempts to make quality assurance their primary function, instead preferring to focus on institutional improvement.
This is where things stand today. The federal government views accreditation as a mechanism to pro- vide quality assurance as a safeguard for its financial aid funding. The accreditation community has declared that its primary purpose is to promote continuous quality improvement. College officials have mixed feelings about accreditation, with some viewing it as a burden that offers little bang for the buck, while others view it as a helpful process that provides outsiders’ perspectives. Meanwhile, the public has grown increasingly critical of higher education and, to the extent that it is even aware it exists, of the accreditation community.
Helping academic institutions to continually improve was the first major function added to accredita- tion, and arguably remains its focus today. Traditional quality improvement tasks associated with accred- itation include assisting in the setting of reasonable goals and strategies, helping establish evaluation systems, providing an outside perspective and providing constructive criticism.