Without standards, everyday life would be chaotic at best. Imagine, for example, every light bulb manufacturer using different sizes of light bulb bases, different thread widths, and different threading patterns. It might take months instead of minutes to find the right bulb for any lamp in your home or office. Without widely accepted and applied technical standards in industry, the use of many products, appliances, and machines would be virtually impossible. Without quality standards in the automotive sector, every car would be a "lemon." Just as there must be technical standards and quality standards in things we purchase, there must be standards of consistency, quality, and performance in other important areas of social and economic investment as well--including education.
Despite some public dissatisfaction with education these days, each accredited institution of higher education must maintain minimum standards of educational quality to preserve its accreditation status. Additionally, most professional educational programs (e.g., law, medicine, nursing, librarianship) are accredited and then re-accredited (about every five to seven years) using standards widely agreed upon in that discipline. This type of accreditation is performed by a specialized accrediting agency in addition to the host university's general accreditation by a general-purpose regional accrediting body (about every ten years). The latter activity serves, primarily, the institution itself while the former is in the interests, mostly, of the profession. While there are some drawbacks to specialized accreditation (e.g., costs to the sponsoring university, costs to the professional association sponsoring the accrediting process, and tying up the time of faculty and staff), such program-specific accreditation continues as the accepted form of educational quality assurance for the professional degree programs.
The rise of accreditation of professional degree programs is but one important aspect of the larger development of professions themselves. The essence of professional status is the possession by the discipline's practitioners of a specialized, sometimes arcane, knowledge, a knowledge transmitted through a specific educational and training process. Restricting access to the discipline's knowledge (and to its utilization) has its roots in the rise of the priesthood in the Middle Ages. Here, the Church determined who would be taught, what would be taught, who would teach, and consequently the standards to be applied. Later, the occupational guilds of Europe followed suit by restricting access to their trades by controlling who could learn them and what could be taught in the guilds' apprenticeship programs.(1) Even today, it makes sense that established practitioners of any profession should control the quality of novices through educational programs and other forms of credentialling (e.g., certification, licensure, registration) as a form of endorsement of new professionals.
In theory, professional education programs seek and submit to accreditation by external bodies for several reasons:
* To provide, using agreed-upon standards, a process for self-study of professional education programs and thus continuing self-improvement,
* To provide society an instrument to protect the public from obsolete knowledge and ignorant practitioners in the professional field,
* To assure those who hire a program's graduates of the program's meeting certain minimum standards of quality,
* To foster continuing excellence in programs being accredited by specialized agencies (e.g., American Bar Association, American Medical Association, National League of Nursing), and
* To provide academic departments offering professional degrees with some leverage as they seek additional resources to improve the program's quality.(2)
Most professional degree programs in the U.S. undergo a wholly voluntary process of accreditation and re-accreditation. …