America’s higher education system is as wide reaching as it is diverse. Its ability to cater to the needs of disparate student populations means it is characteristically unique, but also makes it challenging to impose quality controls. Accreditation functions as the primary vetting mechanism for postsecondary institutions, and has done so for centuries in the United States. Over time, accreditation has shifted from serving as an indicator of institutional legitimacy to a principal component of the higher education funding ecosystem.
Congress’ work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is now raising bipartisan concerns about the efficacy of accreditation. Many Americans recognize that accreditation is vital to the operations of any college or university, but few students, parents, or even educators fully understand how it works, what it accomplishes, or how it impacts tax payers. Failing to grasp the influence accreditation has within the postsecondary education systems can lead to bad outcomes for all constituencies involved. However, this can be avoided by learning about the basics of the accreditation process.
When did institutions start seeking accreditation?
Accreditation dates back to the colonial era in the United States. Private universities, like Yale, received charters from the Crown in an effort to indicate legitimacy and a government sanctioned responsibility to enforce quality assurance mechanisms. After the Revolutionary War, oversight of educational institutions shifted primarily to the states, establishing the regulatory and budgeting system still in place today. The Morrill Land Grant Act (1862) parceled out federal land to states for the purpose of building public universities with the expectation these schools would maintain agriculture, military, and engineering programs. The Morrill Act was one of the first acts of federal intervention and regulation over postsecondary institutions.
As the nation grew after the Revolutionary War, so too did the demand for higher education. Colleges and universities, recognizing the need to set quality assurance standards, created membership associations in which they determined assessment criteria and established peer-review practices. The credibility conveyed by these associations, now called accrediting agencies, was acknowledged by the federal government via the G.I. Bill, making enrollment at an accredited institution a condition for veterans who received these funds.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 cemented the role of accreditation agencies as industry gatekeepers. Students could only receive federal student aid if they attended an accredited university, meaning institutions would have access to a new, generous revenue stream if they sought out recognition from these agencies. Though refined over a number of HEA reauthorizations, the role of accreditation remains primarily the same today as it was in 1965.
How does accreditation work?
Colleges and universities are accredited by one of three types of agencies: regional, national, or specialized/professional. Regional is widely considered to be the most rigorous and therefore more prestigious. The majority of both public (96%) and private schools (69%) receive regional accreditation, but national accreditors still recognize 40% of postsecondary institutions, primarily faith-based or technical colleges. Specialized/professional agencies focus their efforts on certifying schools within colleges and universities, such as medical schools, engineering programs, etc.
Accreditation is completely voluntary, only made compulsory through the granting of federal student aid. It involves a multistep process, beginning with an application and institutional self-study. This internal audit demonstrates the school’s ability to meet the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) requirements for accreditation, including curriculum, compliance with Title IV, and fiscal management. Once completed, the application and self-study are submitted to the agency. A committee of volunteers from member institutions will conduct a peer-review of the self-study and application. The agency will then send a group, also comprised of volunteers, to conduct a site visit. Only after all of these previous steps are completed will the agency review the materials and determine if it will renew or decline the school’s accreditation status.
Institutions must undergo this process every 5-10 years once accredited in order to ensure quality standards are met continually. The initial accreditation application and process can take up to 6 years to complete, depending upon the agency.
Who accredits the accreditors?
Today, accreditation functions as one-third of what is known as the regulatory triad. State and federal governments make up the other two components of the triad, providing oversight to both the accreditation process and the agencies themselves.
Under the authority of the Higher Education Act (1992 reauthorization), the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, also known as NACIQI, issues accreditation-related guidance to the ED. Comprised of 18 appointed members, appointed by the Secretary of Education, the House, and the Senate, NACIQI sets the criteria on which accreditors assess postsecondary institutions, determines which accrediting agencies are recognized by the ED, and mediates the relationship between institutions and their state licensing procedures. NACIQI requires accrediting agencies to undergo review every 5 years, in which agencies must demonstrate their compliance with the ED’s requirements. NACIQI currently recognizes over 60 accreditors, including regional, national and specialized/professional agencies.
Are there some institutions that are not accredited?
Educational institutions may opt to not seek accreditation for a variety of reasons, namely not wanting to be subject to federal regulation. Some Bible colleges or religiously affiliated institutions want freedom in determining their degree plans, graduation requirements, hiring or admissions practices, etc. Other organizations, such as online schools, for-profit universities, or non-traditional education platforms like boot camps, have financing structures that do not rely on receiving federal funds. For example, a primary component of Lambda School’s business model requires students to payback a portion of their salary post-graduation rather than pay tuition upfront. Seeking accreditation, in this case, does not benefit the organization or its students.
Though rare, a college or university may not be accredited because its accrediting agency lost their NACIQI recognition. In December 2016, Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools failed its review process, impacting 245 institutions. If these schools want to continue receiving federal student aid, they must seek accreditation from another agency.
Are there concerns about the accreditation process?
Even though accreditation is a widely accepted practice within the higher education community, it is not immune from critique. Many suggest the cost of accreditation is problematic. Colleges and universities pay annual membership dues to their accrediting agency. These dues are the primary funding source for accreditors. Member institutions of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the organization that accredits Harvard, paid between $6,500 and $32,300 in dues for 2018. When up for eligibility review, colleges and universities must also pay application fees or other agency costs associated with the review process, not to mention time and labor expenses of its own staff. A 2015 Vanderbilt University and Boston Consulting Group report claims accreditation jointly costs the nation’s postsecondary institutions $27 billion annually. This figure includes expenses related to state, regional, and federal compliance, as well as specialized accreditation requirements and meeting publicly funded research grant regulations.
There are also concerns regarding conflicts of interest within the accreditation process. The funding structure, as discussed above, incentivizes agencies to renew accreditation applications rather than apply a rigorous review process for fear of losing revenue. Moreover, agencies which usually have minimal staff, heavily rely on volunteers for peer-reviews and site visits. These volunteers come from member institutions of the accrediting agency and often have professional relationships with the leaders of the university under review. At the risk of losing beneficial relationships, or concerns related to their own school’s accreditation peer-review, volunteers are more likely to be generous when assessing their fellow member institutions. Some agencies try to offset this conflict of interest by only permitting retired professionals to serve as volunteers.
Still, the most popular criticism of the accreditation process is it focuses on institutional inputs rather than assessing student outcomes. Agencies review “traditional concept(s) of what makes a university” such as student-to-faculty ratios, mission statements, and library services, without considering factors such as graduation rates, student debt burdens, or learning outcomes. This emphasis on inputs also inhibits innovation, as some critics argue. Since agencies currently determine institutional quality on conventional education models, organizations that do not fit within construct (like MOOCs and coding boot camps) are currently unable to seek accreditation.
Can accreditation change?
The role, authority, and process of accreditation continues to shift to meet the needs of the modern academy. Still, the infrastructure, requirements, and financial model of accreditation is predicated on the traditional university. As legislators, presidential candidates, and universities discuss the future of higher education in an effort to resolve the student debt crisis, it is reassuring to know that many stakeholders are reviewing the function of accreditation and are open to reform.