By Richard Vedder
Judith Eaton, Mother Superior of the accrediting agencies in America (head of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation) probably breathed a sigh of relief when Margaret Spellings, Sara Tucker and others packed their bags at the end of the Bush Administration. The era of intense scrutiny of accreditation was, it was hoped, over. In fact, the opposite has occurred: the accrediting folks are on the ropes, reeling from multiple attacks from an increasingly activist Department of Education.
The latest incident is the Inspector General of the Department of Education's blistering attack on the North Central Association, the largest of the nation's comprehensive regional accrediting agencies. It seems the North Central's Higher Education Commission accredited a for profit institution without qualification, when it knew full well there were serious questions regarding the rewarding of credit. The IG thinks the North Central unit should be put out of the accreditation business.
I know nothing about the current dispute, and find it a bit odd that the Inspector General is reviewing accreditation decisions of individual institutions. But I have been noting for years that for all the expense, accreditation does very little --rarely putting an institution out of business for poor performance. I have lamented the fact that the accreditors are governed by the universities that are accredited, to me a grievous conflict of interest. I have complained that accreditation costs have been a significant barrier to entry for several entrepreneurial for-profit institutions that it appeared to me should be allowed to operate. Also, some accrediting agencies (notably the despicable American Bar Association) have used racist and other un-American criteria rather than academic standards as a prime determinant of accrediting criteria.
In a world where there were good data on student performance in college, on what faculties do, on the nature of research, etc., we simply would not need accreditation. General Motors did not get into trouble because it was going to lose its accreditation, but rather it got into trouble because people stopped buying its cars. Markets can and do perform a role, and more effectively, than accreditation does. To be sure, given the dubious presence of federal monies in higher education, probably there is some minimum threshold level below which federal monies should not be dispensed to institutions or their students. But that can be accomplished by a small federal agency that reviews data from the thousands of colleges and decides which ones are outside the parameters of acceptability. Since the colleges do not collect or report much worthwhile data on performance, it is impossible to use this approach. Margaret Spellings and Sara Tucker were right in their attempt to force colleges to provide some performance measures as a condition for accreditation, but the colleges ran to their favorite congressional puppet, Senator Lamar Alexander (sometime university president) and got Congress to block the attempt to require accountability.
Good luck to Arne Duncan's crew as it takes on the accreditors. Prediction: they will be as unsuccessful in the final analysis as the Spellings/Tucker crew, but they at least might scare the colleges into a modicum of responsible behavior.