The higher-education accreditation process is successful in a number of ways. If you attend an accredited instiution, it’s unlikely that your money will be outright stolen or that you’ll be given a fraudulent degree. Credentials and credits from accredited institutions are broadly recognized, portable, and non-expiring. The underlying confidence and flexibility this brings goes a long way toward making the American higher education system work as well is does.
That said, accreditation is also opaque and insidery and only guarantees a minimum level of quality. Accreditors are also very reluctant to actually pull the trigger and de-accredit institutions because doing so cuts off the flow of money from the federal financial-aid system and as such consigns institutions to certain financial doom. But whose interests, exactly, are being served by that approach? Take, for example, Southeastern University, in Washington, D.C., which is in the final stages of losing accreditation, because of:
deficiencies that include financial instability, dwindling enrollment and a lack of academic rigor … in the current fiscal year, the school spent $57,000 more on fundraising than it collected in gifts, according to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The six-year graduation rate for first-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees is just 14 percent. And the faculty has shrunk to just 10 members for more than 30 academic programs at a school attended by 637 undergraduate and graduate students this winter.It sounds pretty terrible and given the reluctance of accreditors to invoke a de facto death penalty, combined with the horrible institutional dysfunction that’s more or a less a way of life in the nation’s capital, I’m assuming it is. But failure of this magnitude doesn’t just happen overnight. How did it come to this? Well….
Accreditors noted that they had given considerable latitude to Southeastern because of its mission to educate a diverse and underserved student population but that the same problems had persisted for 30 years.I’m sorry but that makes no sense whatsover. Accreditation is not an outcomes-based process, which we know because colleges and universities generally don’t track student outcomes and among those outcomes that are tracked, like graduation rates, there is literally no floor below which you can fall and lose accreditation. Instead, accreditation is mostly a process-based process. Which is arguably a defensible approach for institutions like Southeastern; one could imagine looking at a college that educates a diverse and underserved population located in a distressed urban environment and saying, “You’ve got a strong faculty and a solid set of academic programs, the resources are adequate and the management is sound, so we’re okay with the fact that not all of your students are succeeding because on some level that’s inevitable given where you are and who you serve.”
Instead, Middle States apparently let various chronic academic and management deficiencies at Southeastern persist for three decades precisely because it serves an academically and economically marginalized student population. That’s just backwards. These are the students who are most vulnerable to a bad education. Plus, Southeastern is a private university that charges $12,000 per year so I imagine students are borrowing a great deal to attend. Debt and poor education in combination are absolutely toxic for low-income students; accreditors ought to act faster to intervene on their behalf, rather than use that marginalization as an excuse to let the colleges of the hook for decades on end.
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