Education Department Official Calls for More Transparency in Accreditation

January 26, 2010

Martha J. Kanter, the No. 2 official in the U.S. Education Department, took higher-education accrediting organizations to task on Tuesday for being too secretive about how they assess colleges and for using outmoded standards that don't give enough weight to measuring student learning.

"Accreditation isn't transparent enough, it just isn't," Ms. Kanter said here at the annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. "And it takes too long."

In her remarks, Ms. Kanter, the under secretary of education, said accreditation was a crucial part of maintaining quality in higher education as the United States strives to attain President Obama's goal of being atop the world by 2020 in terms of the share of its residents with college degrees. The council, an association of about 3,000 accredited colleges and universities, recognizes 59 accrediting organizations; in that sense, it accredits the accreditors.

The organizations that are responsible for assuring quality in higher education must consider whether their processes are really helping institutions improve and whether they are focusing too much on "inputs," such as the amount of time that students spend in class, and too little on what they have learned.

Accreditors and institutions also should be more willing to open up the accrediting process, by making self-studies easily accessible to the public and to other colleges that want to learn best practices, by announcing the teams of peer reviewers that make campus visits for accreditation purposes, and by opening accrediting commission meetings to the public.

"I just think everything we do ought to be open to scrutiny," Ms. Kanter said in an interview after her speech.

Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges, said she felt "caught between a rock and a hard place" on the issue of transparency.

Her organization is one of the six major regional accreditors that serve as gatekeepers for federal student aid, since colleges must be accredited for their students to be eligible for federal grants and loans. But her association is also a private membership group that has determined that a certain amount of information should remain out of the public eye, she said.

Making the entire process open could have the unintended consequence of giving an institution a bad reputation even as they are working diligently to correct problems, said Ms. Wheelan.