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Accreditation nation

November 20, 2008, 8:35 am

Higher education is awash with accrediting agencies, on the institutional level and sometimes on the level of individual programs. Losing one’s accreditation is the kiss of death. Accreditation is a big deal. But here’s one thing I’ve never understood about accrediting bodies: Why do we have them in the first place?

My understanding about accreditation is that it’s roughly analogous to getting a letter of recommendation or a certification — except accreditation is on the institutional level instead of the individual level. You have this body of higher ed people in the accrediting agency, supposedly experienced in how universities and their programs are supposed to operate, and they come in every so often and pore through mounds of collected evidence about how a university does business, and then give a thumbs-up or -down. That way, colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills and are not offering viable academic programming can be distinguished from those that are, and the outside world — for example, the people who employ college graduates — have some sense of what they are getting.

But, two things:

(1) What happens when institutions have viable academic programming but it’s done significantly differently than how the main stream of universities do it, or it’s done from a religious and political standpoint that the experts from the accrediting agency find intolerable? This happened to Patrick Henry College and to King’s College, two relatively new institutions who had to go to court to have their accreditation reinstated, or in PHC’s case revert to a Christian-college-only accrediting body, because accreditation was revoked on the basis of the Christian approach to the curriculum that those colleges employ. How can we be sure that accreditation is not just a political litmus test?

And more practically:

(2) Wouldn’t the free market perform the job that the accrediting agencies are supposedly doing, at much lower cost? If a college produces graduates who are employable and go on to have productive personal and professional lives in the real world, then what difference does it make if it has the stamp of approval of some higher ed bureaucracy? Or conversely, if a university produces graduates who are consistently unemployable or earn a track record for being poor performers on the job, then is the accreditation that the university has earned really worth anything? Why not just dispense with accrediting agencies altogether and let the market decide whether or not the degree is worth the paper it’s printed on?

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