July 16, 1999
A great deal of research has been conducted
in recent years on public attitudes toward higher education, focusing
mainly on questions related to price, value, purpose, importance, and
quality. Little of that research, however, examined the publics
knowledge of and opinions about accreditation, despite its essential
role in serving the public interest.
For this reason, CHEA commissioned a survey
in January 1999 to learn what the general public knows or believes about
quality assurance through accreditation. The poll was conducted by International
Communications Research (ICR), a major survey research firm located
in Media, Pennsylvania, which interviewed (via telephone) a representative
sample of more than 1,000 adults nationwide.
CHEA sought the publics response
to four questions:
- What are the purposes of accreditation?
- What kind of standards does accreditation require?
- Who conducts accreditation?
- Would people take a course from an unaccredited institution?
While the survey was brief, the results
nonetheless can help us better understand the relationship between the
general public and accreditation.
Purposes of Accreditation
When respondents were asked to identify
the purposes of accreditation, more than half of those interviewed said
that each of the seven purposes read to them was a reason for the accreditation
- More than eight in ten cited having degrees recognized for admission
to graduate school (85 percent), guaranteeing the quality of the education
offered (83 percent), and certifying to employers that degrees are
valid (82 percent) as purposes of accreditation. Almost 80 percent
cited qualifying for government funding and three-quarters said allowing
students to transfer credits from one college or university to another
were purposes for accreditation.
Other highlights of responses to the question
of the purposes of accreditation include:
- Higher-income respondents ($50,000 or more) were significantly more
likely than those with lower incomes (under $15,000) to cite certifying
to employers that degrees are valid (87 percent vs. 68 percent) as
a reason for accreditation.
- Those who had attended college were more likely than non-attendees
to say that the purposes of accreditation did not include protecting
students from fraud and abuse (31 percent vs. 20 percent) and ensuring
that colleges and universities are well maintained (27 percent vs.
Standards for Accreditation
A large majority of the public believes
that institutions must meet moderate or high standards to receive accreditation.
More than half of those interviewed (55 percent) said colleges and universities
must meet high standards to be accredited, while about one-third (34
percent) said they must meet moderate standards. Fewer than one in ten
(9 percent) said institutions must meet only minimal standards.
;Additional responses to the question about
standards were: Those who had not attended college were more likely
to agree that educational programs must meet high standards to be accredited
(57 percent vs. 52 percent for those who had attended). Respondents
who had attended college were more likely to think that educational
programs must meet only minimal standards to be accredited (12 percent
vs. 7 percent for those who had not attended). Those who had earned
a degree were even more likely to believe that only minimal standards
need be met (14 percent).
Who Performs Accreditation?
&Based on the survey, few members of the
public are aware that higher education accreditation is a private, voluntary
system. When asked who accredits colleges and universities, the largest
group of respondents (37 percent) said they did not know. The next largest
group (28 percent) identified government (federal, state, or local).
Only 12 percent of all respondents said private organizations are responsible
for accrediting colleges and universities.
Other highlights of responses to the question
of who performs accreditation were:
- Nearly half of those who had not attended college (47 percent) could
not say who performs accreditation. Those who volunteered an answer
most frequently mentioned state governments (17 percent).
- College graduates were more than twice as likely as those with less
education to identify private accrediting organizations as conducting
accreditation (29 percent vs. 12 percent for those with some college
and 3 percent for those with no college).
Accreditation as a Basis
for Educational Decisions
To gauge the extent to which the public
relies on accreditation to make educational decisions, we asked respondents
whether they would consider taking a course from a college or university
that is not accredited. A clear majority (59 percent of attendees and
66 percent of non-attendees) said they would not, though a significant
share (37 percent of attendees and 27 percent of non-attendees) said
Other highlights of responses to the question
were: White respondents were far more likely than black respondents
to consider taking a course from a non-accredited institution (34 percent
vs. 17 percent). Conversely, black respondents (81 percent) were much
more likely than white (61 percent) or Hispanic (55 percent) respondents
to say they would not consider taking a course from a college that is
In general terms, the survey found that,
for the public:
- Accreditation is tied to quality.
- Accreditation is tied to educational mobility.
- Accreditation is perceived as a public enterprise -- to the extent
that people are aware of who accredits.
What Do We Make of This?
This brief survey offers more than one
message. On the encouraging side, the link between accreditation and
quality reflects the general esteem in which the nations colleges
and universities are held by much of the public. A significant number
of respondents appear to value the relationship between accreditation
and high standards and report that they perceive accreditation as a
means to protect the worth of a college experience.
Similarly, the link to educational mobility
is consistent with the generally utilitarian view the public holds of
higher education (a view not always shared by academics) -- that, first
and foremost, it should prepare students for a job. Whether the purpose
is to certify educational experiences for graduate school, employment,
or transfer, the emphasis placed by respondents on this credentialing
function means that the public perceives accreditation as a gatekeeper
both within higher education and between higher education and other
sectors of the economy.
At a time of nearly full employment for
graduates, when the premium for almost any amount or kind of postsecondary
education is higher than ever and increasing steadily, the public understands
that college is a fundamental component of individual economic success
and general economic progress. That also is why the polls show an ever-growing
concern about opportunity and access -- i.e., the fear that students
will be priced out of higher education or otherwise denied the chance
On the discouraging side, the survey indicates
that the public generally is unaware of the extensive investment in
its quality assurance obligations to which higher education has voluntarily
committed itself; that those who know us best (college attendees) think
a bit less of us (recall the responses to questions about accreditation
and moderate and minimal standards, page 2); and that those who know
us best are less likely to believe we can guard some of their interests
(recall the responses to questions about fraud and abuse, pages 1 and
Should we be concerned by low public awareness
of who performs accreditation? Yes -- to the extent that we in the quality
assurance community have not done as good a job as we might informing
the public of the value of our work. Also, the fact that the federal
and state governments are considered to be the most likely candidates
to perform accreditation should give us pause. Despite their well-documented
general distrust of government, Americans frequently expect government
to intervene in almost any aspect of the market, through regulation
and other mechanisms, to correct abuses and protect consumers. If our
own voluntary self-regulatory structures are invisible to the public,
the large reservoir of "dont knows" in response to the
question of who performs accreditation easily could be tapped to expand
the pool of those who already believe it is the governments responsibility.
In sum, the message of confidence in accreditation
suggested by the survey should hearten those who work to further the
aims of quality assurance through self-regulation. It also should hearten
college and university leaders who often are critical of accreditation,
although they prefer it to other forms of external quality review, especially
government-based review. There remains, however, the surveys other
message -- that this confidence has limits -- which is less heartening.
What of the Future?
The survey results should lead us to
consider thoughtfully the terms and conditions under which the public
confidence in accreditation we do enjoy can be sustained in the future.
We can use the survey to expand our understanding of how to better serve
the public, continuing our examination of our enterprise to enhance
the quality of our colleges and universities, the resourcefulness of
the accrediting community, and the benefit that accrues to society when
we work together.
Two major tasks face the quality assurance
community and colleges and universities committed to strengthening the
quality of their work through accreditation. The first task is primarily
internal: The survey sends a message about what we need to do to strengthen
the tie between high standards and accreditation, to improve how we
communicate about who is responsible for accreditation, and to demonstrate
more effectively the connection between accreditation and high quality.
The second task is to focus externally
and pay even more attention to forces outside the academy that affect
us deeply. While not addressed directly by the survey, we know what
these forces are: the accelerating pace of change driven by technology;
the pervasive influence of the market; and the growing expectations
of public accountability. We already are hard at work dealing with them.
Our response to these and other factors will determine how well we are
understood and how highly we are regarded by the public and policy makers
in the future. Indeed, these forces are, increasingly, part of the quality
While not wanting to make too much of
this limited telephone survey, we do think it opens, just a bit, a window
on the public perception of higher educations ongoing commitment
to ensuring quality, and therefore provides a good starting point from
which to begin future discussions. We hope you find it useful.
And we hope that your summer is an enjoyable
one, with adequate time for rest, relaxation, and reflection.
Judith S. Eaton