Public attention to graduation rates, rise of student debt, and the financial stability of a new generation of for-profit schools has put a national spotlight on accreditation. What is the current role of accreditation and is the system designed to handle changes in higher education, including the rise of non-traditional schools, anywhere-anytime learning, and competency-based education? Two academics diagnose the problems of the current accreditation system.
– Meris Stansbury, Editor
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Accreditation agencies are neither pawns nor anti-progress. But the process could use some clarification.
By John Ebersole, President, Excelsior College
Higher education’s accreditation community, in particular the six regional accreditors that serve as gatekeepers to Title IV financial aid, has been a summer target for criticism by Congress, the Obama administration, and various special interest groups.
On one side, accreditors are portrayed as pawns of their respective “clubs” (made up of the institutions they accredit), quick to serve the interests of members, but slow to admit new ones, or to punish any “bad actors” in their midst. On the other side are those institutions, typically for-profit organizations, seeking easier access to federal funds for customers of their various products, who say that accreditors are “too tough” in granting accredited status. In the view of these critics, accreditor caution and sense of stewardship around tax dollars is positioned as a barrier to creativity and innovation, if not the doing of entrenched Luddites.
Accreditation agencies have been forced to play a regulatory role for which they were never designed—we need a new model going forward.
By Kevin Kinser, Associate Professor of Education, University at Albany, State University of New York
Everyone knows that institutions of higher education need to be accredited. Accreditation serves both students and the public good by providing the first indicator of a legitimate institution of higher education. But recent investigations of for-profit colleges and universities have revealed a problem in the accreditation process. Far from being an ironclad guarantee of higher education excellence, accreditation represents a binary evaluation of whether or not an institution satisfies the standards of an independent, non-governmental agency. Moreover, the agency is a membership club, a fraternity where obscure rules and rituals define the process. With the stakes being incredibly high—success equals access to federal financial aid programs—it is no wonder that accreditation has been accused of failing to protect students from the excesses of the for-profit sector.