Little Evidence that Accreditation is a Reliable Quality Indicator

Can College Accreditation Live Up to its Promise?
By George C. Leef and Roxana D. Burris

Rather than ensuring educational quality, accreditation merely verifies that a school has what accreditors regard as the proper inputs and procedures.
This report questions the assumption that accreditation is a proxy for quality. It finds little evidence that accreditation is a reliable quality indicator. The approach taken by most accrediting bodies is to check to see that colleges and universities have certain inputs and procedures. They do not look at learning outcomes and give no assurances about the quality of individual courses or programs. Nor do they insist that institutions maintain sound core curricula. According to reliable studies, the quality of undergraduate education in America has declined considerably, despite the fact that nearly all colleges and universities are accredited.

There are significant costs associated with the accreditation system.
If accreditation does little to ensure quality, it does even less to address the other major worry about higher education—college costs. College tuition, fees, and other expenses have been rising much faster than the rate of inflation for years, but cost control is not among the accreditors’ concerns. To make matters worse, accreditation imposes some substantial costs of its own. There are monetary costs for annual membership fees and for the periodic accreditation reviews. There are opportunity costs, as school resources are diverted from other tasks in preparation for accreditation reviews. And there can be costs when institutions are driven to implement accreditors’ recommendations rather than using their own judgment on how best to provide the education their students need.

This report concludes with a number of recommendations. First, the connection between eligibility for government student aid and accreditation should be severed. Second, trustees should become more active in the accreditation process. Third, state governments should bring needed competition to the field of accreditation by requiring that their colleges and universities solicit bids for accrediting services, just as they would for any other sort of service. Finally, the accreditation associations should start acting in a manner more akin to business consultants than monopolies.

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