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Accreditation and Academic Quality

NOVEMBER 2, 2015

On October 5, 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial critical of higher education accreditation, referring to accreditation as a "cartel" and to accrediting organizations as "an obscure network of higher education busybodies."stating that accreditation "stifles innovation" and calling for "untangling aid and accreditation.  This is not the first time the Wall Street Journal has addressed the topic of accreditation in a negative manner and it probably will not be the last.

I find it interesting that one of the definitions for "cartel," although we normally use the word in a negative fashion, is "sharing a common cause."  Accreditation does have a very common cause--academic quality in higher education.  The accreditation process is a commitment to quality assurance and quality advancement.  Furthermore, accreditation agencies must go through a review and recognition  process with the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in order to demonstrate that they have processes in place to hold institutions accountable for academic quality.

"Busy bodies?" Surely the Wall Street Journal must recognize the strength and the value of higher education.  For over one hundred years, accreditation has been part of building and sustaining one of the most accessible and high quality higher education enterprises in the world.  While the editorial is quick to condemn accreditation because of less-than-desirable graduation rates or higher-than preferred tuition or loan default rates, this is quite unfair.  It is not the accrediting agencies that control tuition rates, student loans or default.

While there is always room for improvement, the different accreditation organizations are constantly interacting with their respective institutions through an engaging and collegial process.  The agencies are exploring ways to better assist institutions while requiring them to provide evidence of student learning.  There is a dated perception that accreditation is a highly prescriptive process that counts desks in the classrooms and books in the library.  This is just not the case.  Accrediting agencies have attempted to welcome innovation and allow institutions to carry out their missions in a variety of different ways. 

During my higher education career, I have worked with two different regional accrediting agencies and two different faith-based, national agencies.   I have always found them to uphold the highest standards of academic quality.  Part of my current consulting activities include serving as a Commission Staff Representative for the Association for Biblical Higher Education as I accompany accreditation teams.  I see the commitment to academic quality and academic improvement being demonstrated.  While accreditation is not perfect system, it is a very good process for promoting academic quality in higher education. 

Larry J. McKinney
Higher Education Consultant

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