Center Renews Call for Overhaul of Nation's Accreditation System

October 20, 2010

The current system of quality control in higher education, overseen by six regional accrediting organizations, is not working and should be replaced, says a new report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

The center's director, Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, is a longtime critic of the system of regional accreditation. He was an outspoken member of a commission, appointed by then-Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, that in 2006 called for a major overhaul of accreditation.

"Why do we need accreditation? We don't accredit automobiles or can openers, yet Americans buy these and are generally satisfied with their quality," Mr. Vedder, who contributes to The Chronicle's Innovations blog, said at a forum sponsored by the Heritage Foundation this month.

The new report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, produced with the help of a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, restates many of the same criticisms and renews the call for a completely new system of evaluating the quality of colleges.

"Our current system of higher-education accreditation is broken," concludes the report, "The Inmates Running the Asylum? An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation."

The accreditation system "is mired in secrecy, delivers imprecise and largely unhelpful information, is clouded by possible currents of self-interest, restricts entrepreneurial initiative, is often costly to administer ... and is not sufficiently outcomes based," the report says.

In place of a system that relies on volunteer peer reviewers and reveals little about its results, a new process should focus on quality assurance by fully disclosing concrete measures like costs, degree-completion rates, and student scores on standardized examinations in individual disciplines, the report recommends.

In addition, institutions should receive numerous indications of their quality from accreditors, including scores evaluating individual schools or programs within an institution.

Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, which represents some 3,000 accredited institutions, said that the study does not actually call for eliminating accreditation and said that outcome "'is probably not possible or even desirable.'"

While the council has "long worked with accrediting organizations to address issues raised in this report and is an advocate for changes that will strengthen accreditation," Ms. Eaton says that her organization remains a strong advocate of self-regulation and peer review.

Kevin M. Corcoran, a program director at Lumina, said the foundation doesn't necessarily endorse Mr. Vedder's report—one of three that the center received money to write. But the foundation also thinks it's important to foster conversation from a variety of viewpoints, he said.