Accreditation nation

Higher education is awash with accrediting agencies, on the institutional level and sometimes on the level of individual programs. Losing one’s accreditation is the kiss of death. Accreditation is a big deal. But here’s one thing I’ve never understood about accrediting bodies: Why do we have them in the first place?

My understanding about accreditation is that it’s roughly analogous to getting a letter of recommendation or a certification — except accreditation is on the institutional level instead of the individual level. You have this body of higher ed people in the accrediting agency, supposedly experienced in how universities and their programs are supposed to operate, and they come in every so often and pore through mounds of collected evidence about how a university does business, and then give a thumbs-up or -down. That way, colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills and are not offering viable academic programming can be distinguished from those that are, and the outside world — for example, the people who employ college graduates — have some sense of what they are getting.

But, two things:

(1) What happens when institutions have viable academic programming but it’s done significantly differently than how the main stream of universities do it, or it’s done from a religious and political standpoint that the experts from the accrediting agency find intolerable? This happened to Patrick Henry College and to King’s College, two relatively new institutions who had to go to court to have their accreditation reinstated, or in PHC’s case revert to a Christian-college-only accrediting body, because accreditation was revoked on the basis of the Christian approach to the curriculum that those colleges employ. How can we be sure that accreditation is not just a political litmus test?

And more practically:

(2) Wouldn’t the free market perform the job that the accrediting agencies are supposedly doing, at much lower cost? If a college produces graduates who are employable and go on to have productive personal and professional lives in the real world, then what difference does it make if it has the stamp of approval of some higher ed bureaucracy? Or conversely, if a university produces graduates who are consistently unemployable or earn a track record for being poor performers on the job, then is the accreditation that the university has earned really worth anything? Why not just dispense with accrediting agencies altogether and let the market decide whether or not the degree is worth the paper it’s printed on?


Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia

9 responses to “Accreditation nation

  1. dean

    Re – the comment about PHC – it’s likely that too much of a “Christian focus” means the academic level is perceived to be as crappy as it is at Pat Robertson’s school, or at Liberty U, or Bob Jones – all of them jokes for anything resembling academic integrity or rigor.
    Having said that; I think your unspoken idea is that all too often the decision about whether schools are accredited boils down to the answer the agency has to the question “Has the check cleared?”
    Even so, I wouldn’t put much faith in the market in judging the validity, or quality, of the “product” of education. University of Phoenix is still in business; I’ve help students in their math courses and regularly see students marked off even though their work is correct.
    And, remember, Intelligent Design/Creationism (both non-science and both poor theology) is still actively pushed: we don’t want the Disco Institute to have any more ability to shove that crap into science classes.

  2. davisphd

    I think that you have an interesting insight into the political aspects of accreditation. I hadn’t thought of it before.

    I wonder if Christian schools with equally strong programs as state schools have issues with their accreditation? Dean (above) implies that their education is poor and it might be, but I have taught at a Christian school that was no less rigorous than the state school I taught in.

  3. @dean:

    “…it’s likely that too much of a “Christian focus” means the academic level is perceived to be as crappy as it is at Pat Robertson’s school, or at Liberty U, or Bob Jones – all of them jokes for anything resembling academic integrity or rigor.”

    That kinds of illustrates my point, doesn’t it? Who gets to decide how much of a Christian emphasis is “too much”? What if you get an accrediting board who thinks that the faintest whiff of religion is “too much”? How are we guaranteed that the accreditation is being performed on the merits or demerits of the academics going on rather than the presence or absence of a religious setting? And how to make sure that we aren’t getting accreditors who equate religion with bad academics?

    To echo davisphd, there are Christian schools out there that are really weak and some that are exceedingly strong academically. Just like non-religious liberal arts colleges and state schools.

  4. dean

    There may well be some good christian schools – Hope College near my home comes to mind, although only a few years ago they demonstrated how anti-academic freedom they could be.
    I don’t think any case can be made for Liberty, Bob Jones, or Robertson’s diploma mill being rigorous in any academic way.
    How much religion is too much?
    * using religious explanations for mathematics /tying mathematics to religious philosophies
    * teaching creationism or its current equivalent intelligent design as science
    * arguing against relativity and other facets of modern science based on biblical interpretations

    The West Michigan area (where I live and teach) is a hot-bed of people who try to do just these things. They certainly are not the majority, but they are vocal.

    Basically, I would argue religion has no place in the science classroom as an exploratory tool: given two possible explanations for physical observations, avoid the one that involves a magic fairy.

    But I fear my point about accreditation has been missed: it obviously is broken. I have served on several committees, working to prepare for accreditation visits. At one we actually had one of the visitors tell a meeting of faculty – one he called – that “I’m meeting with faculty because we need to: we’ll base our conclusions on the administration’s report only”

    Yes, accreditation is broken – and just as I stand by my comments that opened this post, I stand by my belief that the governing decision in the process is “has the check cleared?”

  5. @dean: I’m with you on most of your points. However, I want to take issue with a couple of things you wrote.

    (1) Tying mathematics to religious philosophy is not “too much religion”. Making that connection is an academic endeavor as old as Pascal and Kant, and exploring that connection ought to be a primary focus of a mathematics or philosophy department in any liberal arts college, religious or otherwise.

    (2) “Given two possible explanations for physical observations, avoid the one that involves a magic fairy.” Again, my point is being made — if an accreditor comes in to a Christian college with the assumption that Christianity is about magic fairies, rather than taking the point of view that religious points of view are valid and serious, then what hope does a Christian college have of getting a fair shake?

    I agree that many Christian colleges limit academic freedom. But again this is not exclusively a religious thing. If you want anti-academic freedom, just go read the archives at FIRE and count the number of state and secular universities perpetrating unbelievable curtailments of free speech in the name of that other, secular religion — “tolerance” and “diversity”.

  6. dean

    Then leave the religion in philosophy or religion classes, or on mathematics history classes; it adds nothing to the understanding of mathematics or science.
    My point was only tangentially about Christian schools: I would still argue that it is fair to require them to treat science classes as science, not ID/creationism, arguments about young earth, or anything else we know isn’t true. IF they water down non-religious areas with religion, that is their right, but they shouldn’t get to claim that those classes are equivalent to others where the material isn’t watered down.

    I don’t know what FIRE is (and really don’t care), but if the arguments are about speech codes, etc., I agree: those are disgusting.

    Calling “tolerance” and “diversity” a type of religion doesn’t add anything to the argument for or against either side. I can offer two personal reasons on why a greater sense of diversity is needed. Both of my sons are adopted, both from Korea. In the final month before our first son came, one of my students stopped me. We had this conversation (you’ll see why I remember it.)
    Her: “Are you still planning on the adoption?”
    Me: “Yes – ******* will be here in two weeks. Why?”
    Her: “Well, I’ve been speaking with my pastor about this: he and I have realized that since you and your wife are determined to mix races this way, the only thing we can do is to pray for your eternal souls.”

    I asked her to have her pastor call me, but it didn’t happen.

    Second: just after the Viginia Tech shootings, one of our VICE PRESIDENTS, stopped me in the all and said “Did the recent events make you worried about your decision to adopt two boys from Korea?”

    I realize that the argument can be made that my student, her pastor, and our school VP are simply massive jerks (I think more than that), and I know that diversity training wouldn’t help them, but a little more tolerance, and appreciation of the differences of others, would go a heck of a long way.

    (She is gone: he is still a VP)

  7. The reason that accreditation exists (and that the market can’t just answer the question for itself) is that there are too many schools for every potential employer to be an expert about every school out there. So we — by which I mean the market itself — create a layer of abstraction, and divide the labor.

    I agree with your commenter dean about the problems with this system, and I think your other question is a good one (and probably more usefully taken outside of any religious debate): We know that effective education can take many forms, so how can we ensure that our accreditation processes are flexible enough to accept that range?

  8. @dean: I’ve got two adopted daughters from China, and I’ve encountered some of the same stuff you have from a (former) pastor and colleagues, so again I am with you on *true* tolerance and diversity. The quasi-religious view of “tolerance” and “diversity”, the one most commonly adhered to by higher ed, is neither tolerance nor diversity but a form of identity politics that treats individuals merely as instances of a group identity. That’s what I am talking about.

    And religion adds nothing to the understanding of mathematics or science? That’s a pretty strong statement.

    FIRE is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

  9. dean

    ” religion adds nothing to the understanding of mathematics or science”

    I stand by it.
    Congratulations on your daughters. I don’t mean to paint a terrible picture here; I live near Western Michigan University, and so most people are accustomed to people and children from a wide variety of nationalities. Still morons exist everywhere.

    Our biggest school problem (re position toward students) is that we are to consider them “customers”, and so we are subjected to on-going training on “good customer service” and shorted on the things we need to provide it.
    That is off-track, and I shan’t mention it again.