By Dr. Laura Palmer Noone, CEO, University of the Potomac

A few years ago, I read an article about an institution that had conferred a degree to a dog.  Yes, a dog.  Apparently the dog’s owner signed him up for a degree at an online diploma mill and a couple of weeks later, Fido had a baccalaureate degree.  All of the major education publications picked up the story and then the major news outlets grabbed onto it as well. I hate these kinds of articles for a number of reasons, but the primary one is that some politician somewhere inevitably grabs onto them in order to say that accreditation is doing a poor job of policing quality.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Is accreditation perfect?  No.  Could it improve?  Absolutely.  Does it need to be abolished in favor of a federal system of oversight?  One thousand times NO.

I have heard all the arguments – accreditation is too incestuous, peer evaluation is collusive, and the process isn’t transparent enough for the public to make informed decision.

Accreditation is a very involved process and by design is episodic in nature.  Generally an institution prepares a self analysis (called a self study report) and submits that to the accrediting body. The document is then given to a team of evaluators who visits the institution to confirm the contents of the study and to ensure that the institution continues to meet the standards of the accrediting body.  The visiting team is comprised of faculty and administrators from other academic institutions.  This is usually the first area that critics latch onto – peers evaluating the institution.  Yet anyone who has ever been through a visit can tell you that your peers are going to be your toughest critics.  After all, they come from competitor institutions offering programs similar to yours.  Just how often do you think your primary competitors are going to give you a free pass?

One of the primary reasons accreditation works is that all accrediting bodies themselves go through a process of recognition with the United States Secretary of Education.  Each accrediting body must be reviewed by the Department of Education staff and evaluated according the statutory requirements for accreditation.  The results of that evaluation are forwarded to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) which then makes a recommendation on whether the body should be or continue to be recognized by the Secretary and for what duration of time.  Any deficiencies are noted and the accreditor is given a fixed period of time to address the issue and produce documentation of its resolution. If the accreditor fails to meet the standards or fails to address a deficiency, their recognition is revoked.

One of the other criticisms often lodged against accreditors is that the entire process isn’t transparent enough.  Accreditation reports can be quite lengthy and I doubt most people would want to take the time to read through the massive amount of detail describing the review of the institution and the standards.  Critics then say we should have a standard report card to be used for all institutions.  It sounds like such a simple solution, but in reality it is very complex.  Do we really think we can use the same scorecard to evaluate a cosmetology school and a state research university and a highly selective private liberal arts college?  I doubt it.  Different institutions have different missions and they are evaluated against how well they are achieving those missions.  It is exactly this breadth and diversity of missions that makes United States higher education among the most desirable in the world.

So let’s focus on what is right with accreditation and improving where we can.