By Richard Vedder
When I was put on the Spellings Commission and the topic of college accreditation came up, I asked the question: "who needs it?" I was given many reasons why it was vital, most of them relating to federal funding of education.
My thoughts are turning to the topic again. Yesterday, I spoke some on the topic in Austin at a marvelous conference put on by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF). And in three weeks, I will no doubt be speaking of it again at the CHEA (Council on Higher Education Accreditation) conference. And I would submit that in a market-based higher education system with lots of information available to consumers, accreditation would be unnecessary.
As I told the TPPF audience, we don't accredit refrigerators. Millions of Americans annually purchase unaccredited refrigerators. We bought our unaccredited model in 1969 --and still have it. For almost four decades we have survived using an unaccredited product --and are pleased as can be with that purchase. Refrigerators are high in quality, typically last years, and have warranties against defect (do you know a college with a warranty on its product?) While organizations like Consumer Reports evaluate refrigerators, you do not need their approval to go into business. Why do we accredit colleges but not refrigerators?
The exact equivalent of accreditation is occupational licensing --you cannot perform some services without a license, which is a form of accreditation. Sam Peltzman, Harold Demsetz and others demonstrated a generation ago that occupational licensing most often does not lead to improved service quality --but does lead to higher prices. Unlicensed TV repairmen were as good as licensed ones --but cheaper, since licensing was a barrier to increased supply that served to raise prices. Similarly, in teaching, studies show that uncertified (licensed) teachers typically do about as well as certified ones, meaning vast resources are wasted meeting inane requirements for certification, including forcing students to take courses in the Intellectual Wasteland of most universities, the college of education.
If higher education institutions reported information on student outcomes, and on "value added", we would have consumer information needed to evaluate quality --much better information than accreditation provides. Do you know of a single important institution that lost accreditation because of shoddy academic performance? I think we should reduce barriers to entry into higher education --increasing opportunities for entrepreneurs to open for profit institutions that offer more meaningful competition of our nation's existing schools. I hope CHEA (and its great president, Judith Eaton) does not disinvite me from speaking at their annual conclave. Indeed, with greater transparency in higher education, accreditation could take on a new and exciting role, but I am wondering beyond the question posed for today.