It's hard to be in the accreditation business these days. The original regional accreditors were founded a long time ago, in a different world. The first associations, set up on the East Coast in the late 1800s, were basically clubs with membership criteria that limited entrance to institutions fitting the classic collegiate mold.
That voluntary, peer-based approach made sense in an era when higher education was a smaller and more private affair. But when America embarked on its great mid-20th-century expansion to mass (and increasingly, federally financed) higher education, small nonprofit accreditors with no formal governmental authority were given the keys to the federal financial-aid kingdom and asked to protect the interests of students and taxpayers alike. It is a job they weren't built for, and they are increasingly feeling the strain.
When for-profit higher-education corporations hoover up hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid while granting degrees of questionable value, their accreditors get blamed. When studies like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift call the extent of college-student learning into question, accreditors are denounced for not enforcing academic standards. When some public institutions post graduation rates in the midteens, year after year, accreditors are charged with abetting failure.
Too often, accreditors react to criticism with a defensive crouch. So it's been gratifying to watch one regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, or WASC, take a different approach in recent weeks, setting an example for others to follow.
WASC oversees higher education in California, Hawaii, and the Pacific islands. In early July it rejected an application from the high-flying publicly traded company Bridgepoint Education. Although Bridgepoint's corporate headquarters are in a downtown San Diego office tower, the anchor of its fast-growing online operation, Ashford University, is in Clinton, Iowa, at the former home of Franciscan University of the Prairies.
In 2005 Bridgepoint bought Franciscan, which at the time was declining but still accredited. Franciscan was promptly renamed Ashford.
Seven years, more than 200,000 students, vast sums of taxpayer-supported financial aid, and several Congressional hearings later, Bridgepoint had apparently worn out its welcome with Franciscan's former accreditor, and decided to look for approval closer to its corporate home. But WASC turned it down, for reasons that included a paucity of faculty at Ashford and the fact that 128,000 out of 240,000 students had dropped out over the last five years. "That level of attrition," said WASC's president, Ralph A. Wolff, "is, on its face, not acceptable."
WASC did something else that day which received much less publicity but was, in the long run, probably more important: It posted its rejection letter to Bridgepoint on the Internet for the world to see.
Accreditors have historically been a secretive lot, keeping all the bad news within the insular higher-education family. That's a defensible approach for a private-membership club. But when organizations serve as de facto agents of public accountability, their methods and decisions must be publicly transparent. The other five regional accreditors should immediately follow WASC's lead.
WASC isn't reflexively opposed to for-profit colleges. Even as it turned down Bridgepoint, the accreditor approved for-profit UniversityNow's purchase of struggling nonprofit Patten University, in Oakland, Calif. Unlike Bridgepoint, UniversityNow has a low-cost tuition model and doesn't accept federal financial aid.
Additionally, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, which is operated by WASC, recently warned the City College of San Francisco that it may lose its accreditation because of chronic mismanagement—a step that accreditors are usually loath to take with public institutions.
WASC has also swum into the politically treacherous waters of judging colleges based on whether students graduate and how much they learn. Most colleges gather little or no information about success rates among the profitable and growing adult-student population. WASC will soon require detailed information about the success of nontraditional students.
More controversially, WASC is asking four-year colleges and universities to provide some evidence of how much their students are learning, and to compare that success to similar institutions. This is just common sense. Colleges embody the values of empiricism. Every year they grant credentials based, one presumes, on evidence of learning. Any self-respecting university should be able to put that information in context and articulate where it is succeeding and where it needs improving.
Yet WASC's proposal has met with fierce opposition from the region's elite research universities, including Stanford and the University of California. This is unsurprising, if depressing. The higher-education status hierarchy rests on the assumption that all important elements of university quality vary in the same direction, to the same degree. The richest, most famous, most exclusive institutions with the most Nobel Prize winners on the faculty are presumed to offer the highest-quality undergraduate education.
It's not true, but there's a lot of money and power tied up in the fiction that it is. Elite universities have an enormous capacity to set tone and precedent in higher education, as Stanford and others have done recently, to their credit, in legitimizing low-cost online courses. If high-profile institutions embraced the idea of being accountable and transparent for student learning, others would follow. By rejecting such accountability, Stanford and universities like it are helping to perpetuate a system in which far too many college students receive a substandard education.
Accreditors still face an uphill struggle to effectively regulate huge, transnational higher-education corporations. The power of peer review rests largely in the strong human desire for approval from people who share similar beliefs. Bridgepoint is not a "peer" of traditional liberal-arts colleges and research universities in any meaningful way. That's not a value judgment, just a statement of fact. For-profit companies view accreditation in purely transactional terms. It might be better to cede the task of regulating profit-seeking companies to the U.S. Department of Education, whose aid programs can provide up to 90 percent of those companies' revenues.
Peer review is also vulnerable to logrolling and the mutual acceptance of failure. Many public and nonprofit institutions have attrition rates worse than those at Bridgepoint. Those figures, too, are unacceptable.
But WASC has taken bold steps to make accreditation relevant and effective in a rapidly changing higher-education world. For this, it deserves applause and support. Accreditation may have begun on the East Coast, but it is the westernmost accreditor that has set a new standard that all others should follow.