07/17/2012 05:52 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2012

What's This Accreditation Stuff All About Anyway?

Over the past few weeks, a few colleges and universities lost their accreditation. Consequently, we have spent a good deal of time lately speaking to students currently attending schools whose accreditation has been removed. As you might imagine, they're both panicked and confused (here's what we've been telling them: FAQ). Little in higher education is more misunderstood or more important than accreditation. Opinions, misunderstandings, and lies abound. "So," a responsible college bound student ought to be asking, "what's this accreditation stuff all about anyway?"

There are, I think, a couple of challenges in folks understanding accreditation and its value. First, the internet is the great equalizer ... one doesn't really need to know anything about a subject to loudly and authoritatively express his or her opinion. Given that most people outside of higher education do not know a great deal about accreditation, it's easy to sound expert. I don't know a lot about chemistry ... someone with a score to settle with molybdenum could probably convince me that we don't really need that particular element. It's awfully tough to pronounce and, not knowing what it is, I cannot personally think of one thing it's good for. Likewise, there is a faction which says accreditation is worthless, outmoded, or a bar to outsiders. Much as a chemist might explain to me in layperson's terms what would happen to the world in the absence of molybdenum, let me say this about regional accreditation: my dog has a PhD from a non-accredited "university." She's a smart dog, and her diploma is actually more impressive looking than some of mine, but I think it helps my employment prospects that none of the schools I attended admits dogs.

Second, the nomenclature of accreditation is counterintuitive. In cell phone plans, we don't want the regional plan ... we want the national plan, darn it, or maybe even international. So, one could honestly, yet mistakenly, interpolate that national accreditation is somehow better than regional, international better than national, and intergalactic the best still. Remember how I said it's counterintuitive? You don't have to believe me; try this little exercise for yourself ... list whichever five schools in the nation you think are the best and look up what kind of accreditation they have (CHEA). Go ahead, I'll wait. And, complicating it further still, there are also specialty accreditations for specific disciplines (in addition to, and not instead of, regional accreditation, we have several of these, e.g.: IACBE, NCATE, PATH).

Whenever I'm on one of my campuses, I talk to any prospective students who might be touring. I'll ask them why they want to come to our school and what other schools they're considering. Usually, in addition to us, they have second, third and sometimes fourth choices. Then, before I point out what's different about us I begin with "those are all regionally accredited schools, and, if you go to the worst regionally accredited school there is, you're going to get the opportunity for a decent education..." How can I know this? It's kind of like how if you had a FICO score of 800 I'd know you paid your bills on time without having to know a lot of other details about you.

So, in layperson's stuff, here's what this accreditation stuff is all about. Through literally tens of thousands of hours of voluntary service from some of the sharpest minds in the nation, there has evolved, and continues to evolve, a collection of expectations about what one will find at a quality school. They vary from region to region, and while I speak from the experience of a SACS school (SACS) they're similar. It's a pretty comprehensive, and published, body of expectations which covers not just academics, but an array of things as varied as safety and fair consumer practices.

Then, every accredited school has to demonstrate compliance with these standards. Here's where the value of accreditation comes into play. You ought to be concerned, for example, that the first aid kits the resident assistants have are well stocked with current supplies. But, really, are you going to actually look? Someone did at our last site review. And, you probably ought to be concerned about where the paper records and computer backups are stored. I'm not showing you my vault. I'm not even telling you what building it's in. But, the last on site review committee saw it. And, even if there weren't privacy issues involved, do you really want to sit down and review the transcripts of every single faculty member on my faculty? And, do you want to do that for every school you're considering? Again, someone did. And, as a not for profit our financials are a matter of public record, but fund accounting is funky stuff and not for the faint of heart. These, and thousands of other things, need to be checked. And they are. That's what "regionally accredited" means. Somebody -- expert in that particular area -- has checked the important stuff for you.

Okay, so it needs to be checked. But why not publish one set of standards for everyone, and why not let the government do the checking, and how can you trust an industry to police itself? First, higher education is most assuredly not "one size fits all." "Let's make every school have a 80% graduation rate," one might say. That's great, but what about those schools which go out on a limb and take good kids who aren't quite as well prepared or are at greater risk? Do we really want to limit college opportunities to only those kids who, at 18, we're certain will graduate college? "Let's make all the faculty all have doctorates," you might say. Sounds awesome to me (I have a doctorate ... heck, I say let's make them be bald too). But what about those fields where master's degrees are generally the highest degree available and doctorates are very rare (like fine art and law)? The list of goes on and on. Part of why higher education works so well is because it is not one size fits all.

Forgetting for a moment that no accreditation = no federal financial aid, I'm going to leave most of the "let the government do it" discussion for others. Each person has his or her own beliefs about how involved the government should be involved in our lives, and we each have our own opinion about how good the government is at doing various things, and it's hard to move folks from their position. But here's what peer review has going for it. First, it's relatively inexpensive (important considering that whether it's taxpayer or student money paying the bill, someone worked hard for it and we need to be good stewards of it). The regional accreditors have tiny paid staffs, little infrastructure, and an army of very well educated volunteers doing much of the heavy lifting. Second, peers have a vested interest in quality. When one school provides a worthless degree, all of higher education gets a reputational ding. When one school has unfair consumer practices, all of us get more scrutiny. It's the whole "one bad apple" thing, and the peers have to live in the same bucket. Same reason many police departments have officers patrolling their own neighborhoods and neighborhood watches are generally effective. Finally, collegial subject matter experts add value. If I'm your peer reviewer and you haven't met the standard, I'm going to mark you out of compliance. Simple as that. But, with that said, I had to meet the exact same standard myself, and I'm more than happy to tell you how we did it.

So, to wrap up, what's this accreditation stuff? I tell people to think of the regional accreditors as kind of like Underwriters' Laboratories'. There are any number of extension cords bearing the UL label -- short ones, long ones, cheap ones, expensive ones. But you can be pretty sure any of them are going to do what they promise and not burn your house down. And, the specialty accreditors, well, they're kind of like the GIA, which can't tell you much about the wide variety of products carrying UL labels but knows way more about diamonds.

Perfect? Nope. Awfully reliable indicator of essential quality? You betcha.