Commandment #5: Reform accreditation, so it truly measures performance and does not impede competition, including that from emerging for profit institutions.
by Luke Myers
When the regional associations that accredit the nation’s colleges and universities were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their primary mission was to improve the quality of higher education. But today’s accreditation process has done little to stem the backwards slide in higher education and, by discouraging competition, may be indirectly contributing to the decline in quality and increase in cost.
The six regional accreditation associations are currently the gatekeepers to over $60 billion annually in federal financial aid. Without accreditation, few institutions of higher education could continue to operate. Yet, these associations are made up of and funded by the very institutions they evaluate, making accreditation a process that favors conformity and institutions’ desires rather than the public interest.
First, none of the six regional accreditation association makes public the results of their evaluations. Students, parents, and decisions makers overseeing public money have little information about the strengths and weaknesses of individual schools. Competition is therefore inhibited because standards are so minimal that almost all institutions of higher education in the nation receive some form of accreditation. The accreditation system provides little incentive for colleges to further compete for increased quality because there is no distinction made by the accreditation associations beyond whether schools meet the most basic requirements.
Second, those standards that do exist place emphasis on conformity rather than competition by focusing on the inputs and processes of providing a college education rather than student outcomes. Accreditation is more concerned with whether an institution has a mission statement, faculty senate, large library, professors with high credentials, and strong financial resources rather than with whether these standards actually produce successful students. By requiring colleges to conform to these guidelines on inputs, the accreditation process discourages innovation in the provision of higher education. Advancements developed by for-profit providers have been particularly limited as these new models of education have faced hostility from the traditional accreditation associations whose members are threatened by increased competition. The lessening of competition and imposition of conformity limits an institution’s managerial flexibility and increases the misallocation of resources, leading to increased costs for colleges and universities of all stripes.
Fixing the accreditation process requires that standards be based on a school’s educational outcomes and increased transparency in which all results of the evaluation process are made available to the public. Basing accreditation on whether a college’s graduates actually perform well encourages institutions to improve the education they provide while reducing the costs they input. Publicly releasing all information allows for stakeholders to make a clear distinction between individual schools, preventing colleges and universities from being satisfied with meeting just the minimal requirements. Both improvements incentivize the innovation and competition that is necessary for higher education to improve its declining quality and to keep up with the dynamically changing world.