Liberal Education

Assault on Accreditation: Who Defines and Judges Academic Quality?

The U.S. Department of Education has launched a fundamental assault on the accreditation of higher education. At stake is the longstanding leadership of the academy in determining academic standards and judging academic quality.

The assault on accreditation began with the Secretary of Education's 2005-06 Commission on the Future of Higher Education and its unrelenting criticism of accreditation, especially as it relates to accountability. The commission's papers and its final report repeatedly spoke of accreditation’s alleged failure to assure quality, to encourage innovation, to contribute to U.S. competitiveness, and to sustain adequate rigor in undergraduate education. The commission called for greater emphasis on student achievement, greater transparency, and evidence of quality that would allow for comparability across higher education institutions.

Targeting accreditation was a deliberate political choice made by the commission. Along with the funding of higher education, accreditation is among the few federal levers available to influence change on college or university campuses from Washington, DC. For institutions, accreditation by a federally-recognized accreditor is a requirement for eligibility for student grants and loans as well as other federal funds. For accreditors, sustaining federal recognition means they must be approved for operation by the government on a periodic basis.

The suggestions for federal action offered since the release of the commission report in September 2006, if enacted, would seriously erode the successful self-regulatory enterprise of the past hundred years. Institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and peer review--hallmarks of our enterprise--would be sacrificed in the name of accountability. The prized diversity of higher education would fall victim to a federal vision of accountability so rigid and bureaucratic that it leaves no room for the driving force of institutional mission that is essential to producing this diversity.

Many in higher education responded forcefully and articulately to the criticisms in the commission's work. They pointed out that the higher education and accreditation communities have been and are effectively embracing and engaging current calls for accountability. They described successful accountability initiatives encouraged and nurtured by accreditation, significant work on accountability at many college campuses, and the many accountability-related efforts of higher education associations. They also noted that much more work remains to be done.

These responses had little impact, however; they did not stop the Department of Education's orchestration of a number of subsequent events, each of which sustained the commission’s criticism and ratcheted up the pressure on accreditation. These events included regional hearings in which accreditation was a key topic (September-November 2006), a federal "Accreditation Forum" (November 2006), negotiated rulemaking on accreditation (February-March 2007) and a Secretary's summit on higher education that addressed accreditation among a number of other topics (March 2007).

Taking over the tasks of accreditation

Even as these events took place, the architecture of the assault on accreditation was becoming clear. The federal government has begun a takeover of two tasks heretofore the province of the academy: government agencies would both define academic quality and take responsibility for judging it.

When it comes to defining quality, a single federal schema has not yet emerged. However, some preferences are clear. The indicators of quality that are mentioned most frequently include graduation rates, job placement, course completion, pass rates on licensure and certification examinations, and successful transfer or entry to graduate school. Quality is defined as tangible benefits gained from a collegiate experience.

With regard to judging quality, there appears to be a firmly-entrenched belief that external criteria, external validation, or a single set of external benchmarks must be applied to the indicators to make reliable judgments about quality. "External" means located outside of higher education or accreditation. There are also expectations that a single set of indicators judged by a single set of benchmarks can quickly lead to comparability among institutions of higher education--as urged by the commission.

Redefining important relationships

To enable the government to take primary responsibility for defining and judging quality, two important relationships would also need to be radically transformed: the relationship between institutions and accreditors, and the relationship between accreditors and the federal government. Government efforts are underway to restructure both.

The government would modify the institutional-accreditation relationship by replacing the considered judgment of faculty and academic administrators in our institutions with the judgment of accrediting organizations such that

  • accreditors, not institutions, would set levels of performance for colleges and universities;
  • accreditors, not institutions, would set standards for student achievement;
  • accreditors, not institutions, would dictate indicators of student success.

The accreditation-government relationship would move away from the current mode whereby accrediting organizations partner with government and function as reliable authorities on academic quality. This partnership would be replaced by a superordinate/subordinate relationship in which the federal government plays the superordinate role of directing accreditation decisions about academic quality.

The Department of Education is seeking nothing less than a radical expansion of federal authority over accreditors. The national advisory committee charged to review accreditors would begin to function as a kind of Ministry of Quality. Accrediting organizations answerable to the committee would be told what standards they must use and what counts as quality. The committee’s role would move from scrutinizing to ensure that accrediting organizations have the capacity to judge quality to using these accreditors to enforce standards of quality that the committee sets for itself.

The assault on accreditation is about replacing institutional judgment about quality with accreditor judgment--when the accreditor judgment is controlled by the federal government. The net impact of this assault is a transfer of authority and responsibility for higher education quality that is unprecedented in our history. While there is an appropriate federal interest in higher education effectiveness and accountability, this interest will not be well-served by governmental usurpation of the leadership role played by institutions and accreditors working together to define and judge quality.

Judith S. Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and a member of AAC&U’s National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP).

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