Friday, September 21, 2007

Charles Miller on Accreditation

By Richard Vedder

The American Enterprise Institute, assisted by CCAP, had what I consider a hugely successful conference on accreditation. (Admittedly, I am highly biased, since I largely picked the speakers.) A huge crowd attended, and every single speaker articulated his or her views quite well. In retrospect, I may have erred in not inviting an actual accreditor to speak, although Judith Eaton of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation did a fine job of representing the views of the accrediting community, as did several employees of accreditation agencies in the audience.

The keynote address by Spellings Commission chair Charles Miller was particularly strong in his criticism of the existing system. Let me quote a bit from his remarks, talking about accreditation agencies:

"These are self-regulatory bodies. They are fundamentally and inherently biased. They are biased by their structure. They are biased by their culture. They are biased by their limited experience of people from within the academy who return to the academy. And they are biased by the common effect of group thinking -- of going along to get along."

"Their organizations operate in secret. Their analysis and results are generally not available to the public and there is limited public input in the process or in their governance structure… this structure is ripe for abuse."

Elsewhere, Charles notes the conflicts of interest that accreditation brings about, the monopoly-like, anti-competitive nature of the system, and the huge barriers accreditation poses to entry into the field, a point made by others. Jeff Sandefer, Texas entrepreneur and teacher at the Acton Business School, went so far as to predict that traditional forms of higher education may start crumbling, in much the same way as the Soviet Union or the Berlin Wall -- even with high subsidies, the highly inefficient public schools are losing out to nimbler, more innovative, cheaper (in a broad social sense) new upstarts, including the for-profit universities.

Changing the current accreditation model is much needed, as Charles, Jeff and others (including Under Secretary Sara Martinez Tucker and Spellings Commission member Art Rothkopf) attested. My own thinking is that Sandefer might be right -- higher education may soon cross a threshold where the costs of traditional schools seem to exceed expected benefits, and growing numbers of consumers vote with their feet and seek alternatives.

1 comment:

Steve Turner said...

I wrote the accreditation self-study for my college ten or twelve years ago, and I can tell you that it was a very unsatisfactory experience. Our faculty is unionized. The union tried to hold the accreditation process hostage to the bargaining going on at the time. Administrators (some, anyway) tried to use the process to settle old scores, to gain more influence and control or simply to cover their own butts. At no time did the North Central Association's "visiting team," composed mostly of administrators from other colleges, ask about what went on in classrooms or what students were learning. Nor did they ask why such a low percentage of our students actually graduated. My conclusion is that colleges cannot be trusted to police themselves.

Average tuition is increasing faster than the cost of living. Students are running up tremendous debt and often leaving college without degrees and therefore without increased earning power to pay off debts that the law has made almost impossible to get out from under. Some students who do get degrees find upon trying to enter the work force that they still haven't increased their earning power enough to pay their debts and live a reasonably comfortable life.

If something isn't done soon, higher education will lose the trust of the American people. It already appears to many Americans to be the sort of boondoggle that serves employees rather than students. I say, set up a federal accreditation agency and only offer financial aid to colleges that prove they are teaching students something the community values and that retain to graduation an agreed upon percentage of students who start.