INTEREST AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST: CONFLICT OR CONVERGENCE?
once primarily a private relationship between an agency and an institution,
has such important public policy implications that accreditors must
continue and speed up efforts toward transparency as this affects public
These are words
from the final report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on
the Future of Higher Education. They speak to the extent to which accreditation
does or does not respond to the need to serve the public
interest. The words call into question whether and how accreditation
performs this role and what is needed to serve the public interest in
and Expectations of "Serving the Public Interest"
effectively serves the public interest, it engenders confidence and
encourages trust in the quality of higher education institutions and
programs for students, families, government, taxpayers and others in
the public. Accredited status serves as a powerful signal that institutions
and programs are competent in at least five core areas. Specifically,
- Provide at least threshold academic quality by sustaining and improving
effective practices in student learning, research and service (Academic
- Provide value for money: tuition dollars, whether from private or
public sources, yield respected and reliable credentials as acknowledged
by higher education institutions when students transfer or employers
when students apply for positions (Value for Money);
- Are efficient and effective in the use of public and private resources,
e.g., federal and state student grants and loans, state operating
funds for institutions, private and corporate foundation grants and
individual donations (Efficiency and Effectiveness);
- Provide some measure of protection to students from substandard
or fraudulent education practices such as questionable recruitment
and marketing practices (Student Protection); and
- Provide comprehensive and readily accessible information to the
public about their operation and their results (Transparency).
While the various
accrediting organizations have standards that go well beyond the core
indicators, these are central to what it means to assure the public
that accreditation and higher education are worthy of confidence and
We know that accreditation
passes the test of serving the public interest when aspiring students
indicate that they will consider attending institutions or programs
only if they are accredited. We know that the public interest is served
when government or the private sector will provide funds only to accredited
institutions or programs and when institutions or programs will accept
transfer credit only from accredited institutions or programs.
The Value of
Past Practice: Accreditation's Indirect Approach to Serving the Public
was created 100 years ago, it sought, first and foremost, to serve higher
education institutions and programs. And it was successful. Accreditation
was and is routinely acknowledged by higher education as its primary
means to assure academic quality. Accompanying this was an awareness
that, by serving higher education, accreditation, however indirectly,
also provided important service to the public. Information developed
with institutions and programs about their quality could, at least in
part, be shared with the public. If the higher education community had
confidence and trust in the work of accreditation, so should the public.
This indirect approach
worked for the many years when higher education was a relatively small
enterprise, mainly selective and with limited impact on the general
public. Higher education was not yet viewed as having responsibility
to serve the majority of the population. However desirable, higher education
was not yet central to obtaining a good job and success with other life
chances, although it was vital for intellectual development.
With higher education
now a mass endeavor and essential to more and more of the population,
the indirect approach of accreditation in serving the public interest
is being called into question. Given the increasing centrality of both
higher education and accreditation to so many in society, "serving
the public interest" now requires a more direct and robust response.
The Current Accountability Climate and Accreditation Serving the Public
organizations work assiduously to assure that they and the institutions
and programs they review are worthy of public confidence and trust.
Yet, the current climate is a difficult one, with the enterprise often
challenged to do more. Accreditation is at times described even as failing
to engender confidence and trust. How might this disaffection be explained?
Part of the explanation
rests with the escalating concerns of federal and state government about
accountability in higher education. More and more, elected officials
insist that broad access to quality higher education is urgently needed
and is essential to the future economic and social well-being of individuals
and of the society as a whole. These officials need reassurance from
accreditation about the effectiveness of colleges and universities.
In addition, in
the 1950's, federal officials, handed accreditation the powerful role
of screening colleges and universities for eligibility for federal funds
or "gate keeping." This screening role, more than 50 years
later, now makes as much as $100 billion annually subject at least in
part to the judgment of these accreditors a dramatic escalation
of financial investment over the years and thus another cause for increasing
Both the heightened
concern for accountability and the greater impact of the pivotal screening
role of accreditation in federal and state funding have contributed
to the current questioning of how well accreditation serves the public
Within the Enterprise:
Important Claims on the Attention of Accreditation
There are other
significant claims on the time and attention of accrediting organizations,
beyond serving the public interest. First, the institutions and programs
that originally established accreditation have their own culture and
practices and expect accreditation not only to assure quality, but also
to reflect their respective interests and needs. For example, it is
through the accreditation arms of professional bodies that changes in
professional standards are often affirmed and enforced. In institutional
accreditation, influences on the culture and popular trends of colleges
and universities often find their way into accreditation standards as
with, for example, accreditation reinforcing the assessment movement.
Second, accreditation itself is a community of professionals, men and
women who have considerable expertise and experience in quality review,
assessment, quality assurance and quality improvement. Ongoing efforts
to enhance the enterprise have an important claim on the attention of
Third, as with any self-regulatory system, the relationship between
accreditors and the institutions and programs that created accreditation
is one of delicate balance. Sustaining the health of this important
relationship is yet another claim on the attention of accreditation.
Institutions and programs not only established these bodies, but remain
key sources of ongoing finance and governance. The financing of accreditation
by those who are accredited means that there is ongoing pressure on
accreditation to avoid conflict of interest such as deriving financial
benefit from expanding the number of accredited institutions or programs.
Governing accreditation by those who are themselves accredited raises
other conflict concerns, such as avoiding temptation to relax the rigor
of quality standards in order to expand membership.
However laudable they are, these additional claims on the attention
of accreditation meeting the needs of the higher education culture
and the professions, improving the practice of accreditation, the struggle
to maintain balance in the self-regulatory relationship can lead
to behaviors that are at variance with directly serving the public interest.
For example, accrediting organizations might believe they need to focus
greater attention on the needs of the higher education community than
of the public and to emphasize the robust engagement of professionals
while paying less attention to engagement of the public.
The Public Interest
and Professional Interest: Effective Practices for Convergence
Even while acknowledging
the past practice and the significant internal claims on the attention
of accreditation, it is nonetheless very much in the professional interest
of these organizations to provide additional, robust attention to the
public interest. To this end, accreditors would benefit from routinely
asking themselves probing question to determine how well they serve
the public interest, building confidence and trust. And it behooves
accrediting organizations, where appropriate, to expand and strengthen
their efforts in this important area.
need a public interest audit or checklist to:
- Assure that
accreditation reviews are structured such that accredited institutions
and programs meet the test of the five confidence-building indicators
noted above: academic quality, value for money, efficiency and effectiveness,
student protection and transparency.
- Assure engaged
and energetic public involvement by balancing higher education community
and professional interests in the participation on decision-making
and governance bodies, site visit teams and the development of accreditation
standards, thus going beyond minimal public engagement to substantial
participation from the public.
- Avoid conflict
of interest in finance and governance by acknowledging the fault lines
of any self-regulatory system and, in response, assuring maximum transparency
in key areas of decision making.
- Focus strategically
on emerging public needs, e.g., how review of internationalization
of higher education serves the public interest.
- Strengthen public
confidence in accreditation by additional responsiveness to the current
accountability climate, especially expanding information to the public
by, for example:
- Calling on institutions and programs to provide
direct evidence of performance and student learning outcomes and
succinct, clear descriptions of the reasons associated with granting
or denying accredited status.
have served the public interest well in the past, primarily by using
an indirect strategy, that of providing the public with information
as byproduct of serving colleges and universities. This strategy that
has worked so well in the past is unlikely to be as effective in the
future. Accrediting organizations need to monitor themselves through
a checklist or audit of effective practices to enrich their service
to the public interest in the future. They need a convergence of professional
and public interest.