The College Accreditation Monopoly
Before the federal government got into the business of subsidizing higher education, almost nobody paid any attention to the various college accrediting bodies. Colleges and universities could seek their stamp of approval and many did, but there wasn’t any penalty for not doing so.
That changed when, during LBJ’s Great Society, the federal government began establishing the grant and loan programs meant to make college “affordable” to more Americans. The problem was, how to keep students from wasting the money on bogus degrees at ersatz colleges?
Here’s the solution our politicians devised: students could only use their federal money at schools that were accredited. The operative assumption was that accredited colleges must be reasonably good and unaccredited ones were probably bad if not downright fraudulent.
Thus, the accreditation organizations “recognized” by the Department of Education became the gatekeepers for the greatly desired flow of federal student aid. As usual, though, the politicians didn’t consider the long-run implications of their action.
One implication was that the accreditors had been given enormous power over colleges that soon became hooked on students with federal aid money.
Senator Marco Rubio, a leading Republican contender for the White House, has criticized that power and in this Des Moines Register op-ed, advocates changing federal law to allow the creation of new accreditation bodies. Doing that, he maintains, would “transform higher education by exposing it to the market forces of choice and competition.”
The accreditation regime is far from the only or worst offender against choice and competition, but it might prove helpful if the current cartel of six regional accreditors was deprived of its chokehold over new entrants into higher education.
An October 5, 2015 Wall Street Journal editorial, “Trust Busting Higher Ed,” also takes up this issue and regards it as good news that politicians are targeting the accreditation cartel, which it accurately calls “an obscure network of higher-ed busybodies.”
The Journal points out that accreditation visits are done by faculty and staff from schools in the same region, with attention focused on tangential matters like the number of books in the library, not at any useful benchmarks for student learning. And it is extremely rare for a school to lose its accreditation: “The six agencies that approve more than 1,500 four-year colleges have in the past 15 years revoked accreditation for, wait for it, 18,” the editorial notes.
I will add that when a school does lose accreditation, it is almost always because of financial difficulties, not because many of its courses are fluff and the students learn very little.
Two more critics of the current accreditation system are law professor Gail Heriot and attorney Peter Kirsanow, both members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In this letter to Senator Lamar Alexander, they note how accreditors can use their leverage to pressure schools into adopting “diversity” policies they don’t want and argue for a change in statutory language that would keep accreditors from penalizing schools that do not follow their preferred diversity standards.
The status quo is a mess, but what changes should we make?
Senator Rubio proposes legislation allowing the Education Department to add new accreditors that presumably wouldn’t be as hidebound as the “gang of six.” I don’t think Rubio’s plan would do any harm, but I’m skeptical that it would do much good either. That’s because accreditation just isn’t effective in ensuring quality or identifying schools that are merely pretending to educate students. (Sadly, that is perfectly acceptable to many young Americans who think that schooling shouldn’t be demanding.)
It is a mistake to believe that students get a sound education just because they attend an accredited school. We know that many don’t. The accrediting body for the University of North Carolina, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, was clueless about the widespread academic fraud of make-believe courses. That scandal was only uncovered by a few intrepid faculty members. (See my Pope Center article about the UNC scandal.)
More generally, there’s abundant evidence that academic standards at many accredited schools are extremely low; students can often coast through to their degrees without learning anything, as sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa demonstrated in their book Academically Adrift.
Accreditation is a very poor way of preventing students from wasting government grant and loan money on college programs that have minimal value. So with all due respect to Senator Rubio, we shouldn’t rely more on accreditation, I suggest that we no longer rely on it at all.
Rather than anointing accreditors with the power to decide which institutions look “good enough” to receive federal student aid, we should employ a different approach. Congress should write a definition of educational fraud into the law and stipulate that any institution found to practice it will be denied federal funds for a period of five years.
What would educational fraud entail? What I have in mind is the practice of giving academic credit for doing little or no work – pretend education. That’s why diploma mills have a market. Many people want college credentials but without doing any work. Taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize that.
Enforcement would be done by the Education Department, perhaps using “testers” who would register as students and blow the whistle if the school was just selling degrees without serious work by students and faculty.
Schools – and not only pure diploma mills but also “real” colleges that have gotten into the habit of handing out lots of credits for no work – would have to worry that their pipeline to the federal treasury could be cut at any time. Administrators would have strong incentives to stop the educational hoaxes exemplified in classes where every student gets an A.
And students who only want to go to college for a fun, easy credential might find themselves with few options, unless they’re willing to pay without federal financial aid.
This change would do a better job of preventing the waste of student aid money, and without the harmful, anti-competitive effects of the accreditation trust.
As a side benefit, it would put the accreditors to the test of the market. Schools would seek accreditation only if they thought it was worth the expense and not just because it allows them to enroll students who pay with federal aid dollars.
Originally posted on Forbes.
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