Richard Vedder is a distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University and was a member of a government commission that in 2006 called for a major overhaul of higher education accreditation. He is also director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit research center that recently released a report critical of the current system of accreditation. CQ Researcher author Barbara Mantel interviewed Professor Vedder.
CQ: Students who receive federal loans and grants must attend an accredited college or university, whether for-profit, not-for-profit or public, because the federal government wants to assure quality. Do the various private accrediting bodies do a good job assuring the quality of the education offered in the United States?
RV: I don't think they do a terribly good job. Not all accrediting agencies are equal, but on the whole, I don't know of a major institution that has ever lost accreditation or come close to losing accreditation because of the poor quality of the graduates or deficiencies in instruction. There have been minor exceptions to this among small institutions.
CQ: You say one of the problems with accreditation is that it relies on colleges self-reporting, and the reporting is secret.
RV: Colleges fill out questionnaires and write reports, and an accreditation team will come in and look around. And the final reports from the accrediting agencies are largely confidential. What good is the accreditation report if it is not public? All the public knows is if the school is accredited or not. They don't know any of the details.
CQ: How do accrediting bodies measure the quality of education at, say, the University of Phoenix or Harvard?
RV: They look at inputs, things like the percentage of faculty who have Ph.Ds, the number of books in the library, the teaching loads of faculty.
CQ: You're critical of that method. Don't these measures tell us something about the quality of the education?
RV: I couldn't care less how many books are in the library. First of all, how many students read books in libraries anymore? I'm not saying that inputs are irrelevant, and one thing that is nice about inputs is that they are easy to measure. But outcomes — how much students know, for instance — can be measured. And it's outcomes that we care about.
CQ: So why aren't outcomes measured?
RV: I think schools are a little afraid of measuring outcomes because the results sometimes may be unfavorable to them and could hurt them in terms of their reputation and accreditation. Since no one is forcing them to measure outcomes, they stay away from things that may impose some risk. The accreditors are the natural people to enforce this, and I think they are generally negligent in this.
CQ: What measures of outcomes should accrediting bodies use to assure quality, then?
Prof. Richard Vedder, Director, Center for College Affordability and Productivity. (Courtesy Richard Vedder)
RV: Accreditors do look at dropout rates and how long it takes to graduate. Those are OK measures, but let me mention three or four more that I think are important. First, do the seniors who graduate know more than they did as freshmen? Second, are graduates succeeding in their post-graduate life? Do they succeed in graduate school, do they succeed financially? Third, are your graduates better critical thinkers than when they entered college?
CQ: Compared to measuring the number of books in the library, measuring such outcomes seems extraordinarily difficult.
RV: There are tests out there. For instance, we give CPA [Certified Public Accountant] exams at the occupational level. Why can't we systemize this? Why can't the accrediting agencies get together as a group and insist on this [and] perhaps create a national commission to decide on this? Nothing is perfect, but it would be a step in the right direction.
CQ: Given the differences in the student populations at each school, is it fair to judge educational quality with tests like this at graduation?
RV: You do have to take into account the knowledge and abilities of students coming in. You have to measure the value added at the institution, so you might have to test students at the beginning and end. And that's no big deal. We test them in the beginning anyway. Most have to take an SAT test.
CQ: What are the chances that standardized tests in different disciplines to measure what graduates have learned would actually be adopted?
RV: It's fiercely resisted by the universities. But I think there is growing pressure for something like this to happen. I wouldn't rule it out. I think in five years or so, it will be politically feasible.