by Peter Neiger
Few people with any knowledge on the subject would say that the current higher education accreditation system is flawless. It is a system filled with abuses, secrecy and is a lethargic process that rarely protects students from failing universities. This is the same problem that you will always find when a private entity is given a virtual government monopoly over an industry. We see the same thing in the current health-care debacle where private insurance companies are exempt from anti-trust laws and allowed to corner the market in a geographic region.
It seems that the joint public-private system is unsustainable and many people have proposed moving towards a federal public system run by and monitored by the government. Unfortunately, this is not a viable solution and would create a different set of problems for the system in which the needs of the consumers of higher education - students and the tax-payers - would be neglected. A potential national accreditation system suffers from two potential problems: industry capture and a status quo bias.
When a government agency works to set the requirements for an industry that it seeks to regulate, it must turn to “professionals” in that industry. In all likelihood, a national accreditation system would turn to the very universities that it is monitoring for information on what to require. These lobbyists would continue to call for vague requirements that are not based on value-creation, but on the convenience of the universities. The education industry will capture the accreditation system to a greater extent than it already has. Just look to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was created to regulate farming and now acts as an advocate for farmers. The needs of the special interests will be placed ahead of the general public.
There is also the strong possibility of a bias towards the status-quo and a low tolerance for change. Transparency is important to politics so the elected officials and bureaucrats will lean towards the status quo. Nobody wants to be the one in charge when a school is failing, it is much easier to either ignore the problem and pass it on to someone else or fight against any disruption of the system. The FDA is a prime example; in order to make sure that their political careers advance, the employees of the FDA are overly cautious. This overly-cautious nature brings drugs that could save lives to market too slowly. Government regulation of accreditation will have the same effect, it will only work to further hold back innovation and reduce the competitiveness of Americans on the global market.
The status quo is unsustainable, but nationalization is not the answer. A government run accreditation system will bring about all the negative aspects of the current system, possibly add a few more, and bring no solutions. This system will continue to restrict entrance into the higher education industry, do nothing to improve quality or lower costs, and cost the tax-payers bundles of money for another government bureaucracy.