Accreditation and the Federal Future of Higher Education

By Eaton, Judith S. | Academe, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

Accreditation and the Federal Future of Higher Education


Eaton, Judith S., Academe


The federal government's presence is increasing in areas that traditionally have been the province of the faculty and institutions. It's time for faculty members to get beyond deprecation and discontent and strengthen independent and meaningful accreditation.

When we think of accreditation, we mostly think of a process that takes place on our campuses. This thought may or may not be agreeable to us. We rarely consider accreditation's political role as a key intermediary in the increasingly complex legal and regulatory terrain between colleges and universities and the federal government. We pay even less attention to how faculty members might provide leadership in accreditation. But it's essential that they do so.

Accreditation is being transformed from a valued private-sector process-over which the federal government historically has exercised limited control-to a process that is subject to more and more federal involvement. The implications of this shift, profound for faculty members, can include the erosion of academic freedom and the loss of appropriate authority and responsibility for the key academic decisions that have defined the faculty role for centuries-that is, judgments about curriculum, academic standards, and general education. The core academic values on which accreditation is built and in which faculty members invest are currently at risk as the government role expands.

What Is Accreditation, and Why Is It Important?

Accreditation is a creation of colleges and universities that dates back more than a century. Its fundamental purposes are quality assurance and quality improvement in higher education. A process of self-regulation through peer and professional review, it is the oldest such system in the world. Today more than seven thousand colleges and universities and more than twenty thousand programs serving some twenty-four million students willingly undergo periodic accreditation review by nineteen institutional accreditors and sixty-one programmatic accreditors. Accreditation is nongovernmental by design and relies on funding from colleges, universities, and programs (some $92 million in 2007, according to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, of which I am president). Accreditation depends heavily on volunteers from higher education who participate in self-studies, serve as peer and professional reviewers, and serve on accrediting organizations' decision-making bodies.

Accreditation reflects three core values of higher education, all essential to academic quality: institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and peer and professional review. What happens to accreditation will happen to institutions. When the federal government makes demands on accrediting organizations, the intent is to influence the behavior of institutions, and this affects faculty members. To the extent that they are at odds with our core academic values, demands that accreditation be more accountable, set standards for student achievement, and be more transparent endanger the traditional role of the faculty.

In the early 1950s, private-sector accreditation willingly entered into a partnership with the federal government. The government, seeking to ensure that federal funds for student grants and loans were spent responsibly, turned to private-sector accrediting organizations for reliable judgments about the quality of institutions and programs. This arrangement, commonly referred to as the "gatekeeping" role of accreditation, put these private-sector organizations in the pivotal role of providing (or sometimes blocking) institutional or program eligibility for federal funding. Today, that funding reaches some $150 billion per year. As accreditors took on this role, the federal government viewed them as making an "invaluable contribution" to the development of educational quality. The U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1970 described accreditors as "the primary agents in the development and maintenance of educational standards in the United States. …

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