In recent public debates regarding higher education, considerable attention has been paid to the general accreditation of higher-education institutions. In 2006, for example, the so-called Spellings Commission issued a report that calls for significant changes in accreditation:
Accreditation, the large and complex public-private system of federal, state and private regulators, has significant shortcomings. Accreditation agencies play a gatekeeper role in determining the eligibility of institutions and programs to receive federal and state grants and loans. However, despite increased attention by accreditors to learning assessments, they continue to play largely an internal role. Accreditation reviews are typically kept private, and those that are made public still focus on process reviews more than bottom-line results for learning or costs. The growing public demand for increased accountability, quality and transparency coupled with the changing structure and globalization of higher education requires a transformation of accreditation. (U.S. Department of Education 2006, 15)
The commission also criticizes accreditation for maintaining the status quo. A later finding is that "[a]ccreditation and federal and state regulations, while designed to assure quality in higher education, can sometimes impede innovation" (16).
In this short article, I briefly explore accreditation in higher education and the extent to which it represents market regulation or government regulation. I look at the extent to which general accreditation of colleges and universities as practiced in the United States has emerged from the needs of students, colleges, and universities or has been planned from the top down. If accreditation is an emergent phenomenon, like a marketplace, then as social scientists we should be extremely skeptical of attempts to "fix" what may not be broken. (1)
The Demand for Quality Regulation
The quality of some goods and services is easier to observe than that of other goods and services. For example, it is fairly …