Friday, December 18, 2009

Why So Much Secrecy With All Things Accreditation?

by Andrew Gillen

Today’s papers bring a story that could only happen with accreditation. For those of you unfamiliar with accreditation, the federal government didn’t trust itself to regulate institutions of higher education, so it allows accrediting bodies to act as the gatekeepers to federal money. If a college wants its students to have access to federal financial aid money, it has to satisfy the accreditors that it knows what it’s doing when it comes to providing an education. It’s a reasonable approach in theory, but the implementation is entirely screwed up.

One of the main problems is that everything is kept a secret. For instance, one very important question concerning higher ed is how much value they add (as opposed to just performing a signaling/screening function). Several weeks ago, I heard Judith Eaton, president of CHEA, the accreditors group say “Our research shows that there is value added.” This is great news. Where can you find the studies showing all this value added? You can’t, because the accreditors keep them secret.

Other methods of addressing the issue, such as NSSE and CLA, also keep their results secret, but this is because they are voluntary. If they didn’t agree to keep them secret, no schools would participate. Accreditation is different – there is no need to keep the results secret because the schools are required to participate. Keeping the results secret serves no beneficial purpose.

All this secrecy is why today’s stories are not that surprising.

Doug Lederman
the Education Department's inspector general issued a stinging rebuke Thursday of the country's largest regional accreditor and urged department officials to consider terminating the agency's authority…

Exactly what issues that the Higher Learning Commission found (and that the inspector general accuses it of underemphasizing) is impossible to tell from the heavily redacted eight-page memo that the inspector general published…
Eric Kelderman
News of the report also sent shock waves through the for-profit higher-education sector. Nearly all of the major for-profit companies whose institutions seek regional accreditation do so through the Higher Learning Commission, and all of them, like American InterContinental, operate extensive distance-learning programs…

It "suggests a whole new level of hostility on the part of OIG to what and how the for-profit schools operate, particularly online,"
Is the government simply ensuring that accreditors are doing their job, or are they trying to scare them away from accrediting evil for profits? It’s easy to adopt a conspiratorial mindset and [potentially] read too much into these types of things when everything is kept secret.

Secrecy is the enemy. The excessive reliance on secrecy with all things accreditation translates into the following:
  1. The accreditors approach to regulating colleges: trust us, we’re experts
  2. The government’s approach to regulating accreditors: trust us, we’re experts
This would be great, except for the fact that our friends over at CAP, New America, and Education Sector detail the reasons we shouldn’t trust private entities, especially for profit ones, and our friends over at Heritage, AEI, and Cato detail the reasons we shouldn’t trust the government.

Perhaps we'd be better off if we eliminated all this secrecy so that we could fulfill the latter part of that old slogan: trust, but verify.

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