My life these past few days has been consumed by accreditation. Tomorrow, by midnight Central Time, our college has to submit its latest accreditation documentation, and the whole effort has been entrusted to me.
Our regional accreditor has a slick new online system for submitting documents. (Actually, you have to submit one document using one method of formatting, another document using a different formatting approach, and a third set is submitted still another way via the online portal—but I digress.) The online portal is easy to understand, easy to coordinate with lots of people, and all-around geeky and slick. When it works.
When it breaks down two days before your deadline on a weekend so no one answers the telephones, then it’s not so slick.
The project has made me think about what “accreditation” means. The word is from Latin roots: ad meaning to or toward, to make something be so; and credere meaning believe. An institution that is accredited is one that people credit or believe or feel confidence about.
I would be interested to know: When you learn that this college or that university is accredited, what do you believe about it? Do you feel confident about something? Leave me a comment—I’m serious.
Anyhow, the accreditation movement started near the turn of the twentieth century, when public high schools had just taken hold on the American scene and college enrollment was at an all-time high. Colleges and universities needed a way of coordinating what their entrance requirements would be so that high schools could know what to shoot for. Institutions in a given area collaborated, and “regional accreditation” was born. It was a grass-roots solution to a felt need.
Fast forward to 1952. With the GI Bill, not only did college enrollment shoot through the roof but the government had money invested. They needed an easy way to decide which institutions qualified for government funds, and the easiest way to do it was to give money to accredited schools.
With a stroke of the pen, accreditation became the gateway to federal funding. Before that time, accreditation was something schools did voluntarily; since that time, accreditation has been something schools do out of financial necessity (with few exceptions). What’s more, state laws need to sort out which schools to license for operation, and they often just say that regionally accredited schools are the ones that qualify. Wherever that kind of law is in force, regional accreditation is not only monetarily necessary but legally mandatory.
All of which means that the regional accreditors—a collection of six small, privately run organizations—have a complete monopoly over who lives or dies in American higher education.
The regional accreditors now live an awkward double life. On the one hand, they want to answer to their member institutions and serve their felt needs; on the other hand, they need to answer to the government lest they lose that all-important gateway to government funding.
My prediction: Either the government will simply absorb the six regional accreditors into one federal mega-monopoly or the whole thing will disconnect from federal funding and accreditation will become a voluntary, free-market reality once again.