By Richard Vedder
When Margaret Spellings and Sara Martinez Tucker pushed hard for real changes in what accreditation agencies asked of colleges and universities, they met a firestorm of protest, partly from colleges and universities, but also from the Accreditation Establishment, the people who administer accreditation in the U.S.
Part of the protest, typically from colleges themselves or their representatives in college associations, resulted from fear -- being forced to reveal what students learned, for example, might be extremely embarrassing and could contribute to a loss of enrollment and market share. But part of the protest was from those fearing a loss of power or, worse, their jobs. When Bob Dickenson did a fine study for the Spellings Commission that advocated going to a single national accreditation organization instead of seven regional accreditors, the level of protest was unbelievable -- you would have thought the world as we know it had come to an end.
It may be sad, but it is true: for accreditation reform to work, either the reformers have to be prepared for all out World War with the accreditation establishment, or they have to make accommodations with them. My guess is the reformers would lose an all out war -- Congress is susceptible to bribes (via lobbyist contributions to campaigns), and the accreditors have deeper pockets than the reformers. They will simply out-lobby (bribe) the reformers. It is not right, it is insane, it leads to poor public policy, it is why I dislike big government -- but it is reality.
If I am right, the "second best" strategy may be to make peace with the accreditors, if not the individual colleges and universities or their organizations (NAICU -- the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities -- is a particularly outspoken group, for example). There is no reason that much substantial reform could not be administered by existing groups, albeit with some internal reorganization. SACS (the chief accreditor in the South), for example, could still exist, and shift perhaps to a more in house review of data and evidence rather than rely on external accreditation teams in making evaluations. The AACSB could still accredit business schools, and NCATE teacher education programs (although, as a separate issue, if I ran this country I would go to war to radically change teacher education and probably eliminate NCATE in the process).
There is, however, a strong case for going to national accreditation, which would eliminate the regionals. Randy Best, a great educational entrepreneur whose Early College, education training, and international schools are growing like crazy, has lamented time and time again to me that the regional accreditation system is just plain crazy, and leads to inconsistencies in regulation that have no rational basis. If that is right, and if national electronic based higher education is growing, the case for a national accreditation agency -- at least for the distance learning schools --is pretty compelling. Maybe "making love not war" is the wrong strategy.
All of this will be hashed out tomorrow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington at 9:30 a.m. The registration for the conference has radically exceeded expectations, but there are still some spots left (register now though because if we exceed room capacity, we will have to start turning people away). The interest in the topic is heartening, and points to the seriousness of the issue and its importance in fashioning a better, more efficient and effective higher education system.