June 8, 2008

Nailing down accreditation

Kevin Carey has an interesting short essay this weekend on college accreditation, essentially arguing that the federal government should use its regulatory authority over regional accreditation agencies to exert indirect pressures on colleges. There's a thumbnail history of government support of higher ed in the postwar era* and an argument that it was kosher for the Bush administration to use federal oversight of the accreditation process to create additional responsibilities for accreditors.

The current accreditation system works well in some ways. Accredited colleges are very unlikely to steal your money and take it to the track or hand you a worthless diploma from KevU. Accreditation brings certain standards in terms of faculty credentials, financial integrity, etc.... But the peer-based nature of accreditation also limits its utility.

I agree: accreditation is useful for some purposes and not for everything. According to Carey, it serves the "don't let federal dollars go to fly-by-night institutions" purpose well.

The critical question is whether accreditation can or should serve more than that purpose as far as the federal government is concerned. Carey describes the backlash against the Bush regulatory attempts as an explicit desire to escape accountability. I suspect it's far closer to a feeling among accreditors that the federal government is pulling a bait-and-switch tactic. Having created an apparatus to do precisely what Carey says (making sure that accredited institutions are not frauds), Spellings wanted them to look much more like Big Brother in higher education. I don't think accreditors have the capacity to do what Margaret Spellings and Kevin Carey would like them to do, I don't think they'd have the legal or political authority to do it as the Bush administration packs its bags, and I think if forced to do it, they'd do a lousy job. I'm afraid this is a case of seeing accreditation agencies as a hammer, with accountability looking mightily (and incorrectly) like a nail.

* Not so minor pickiness: Carey's propagation of the Myth of Research Fetishes:

So we made universities care about one thing—research—even as we needed them to be good at another thing—teaching. This fundamental and on some level irreconcilable tension is the source of much of what's wrong with higher education today.

There's much we can debate about a Weberian analysis of higher education, but that claim about emphasis is simply not true: not only are most students and faculty still in institutions largely devoted to teaching, but Carey knows (or should know) that the vast majority of undergraduate students are in public institutions (not many of which are Research I), and more than a third of undergraduate students attend 2-year institutions far removed from research. Far more to the point is his previous argument that legislators often give some institutions preferential treatment come budget time. He assumes it's always the flagship university. I'm not so sure; in some states, community colleges have enormous political sway. And in plenty of states, legislators don't seem to care about higher education as anything more than an opportunity for patronage and corruption (ask faculty in Alabama).

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Posted in Higher education on June 8, 2008 7:57 PM |