Andrew Ratley got some good news earlier this month; the law school he’s attended since 2019 gained full accreditation. That means the legal education he’s invested years—and thousands of dollars—into will soon allow him to become a lawyer.
The American Bar Association, after years of study (and no small amount of controversy) finally gave the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law its seal of approval in March.
But what if it hadn’t? Why does accreditation have so much influence over careers and futures?
The higher education accreditation system is supposed to ensure that students are receiving a quality education. It acts as a gatekeeper for federal financial aid, requiring colleges to follow its rules. But the truth is that accreditation often means little, while costing institutions—and therefore students—millions of dollars, all the while discouraging innovation. Accreditation acts more like a cartel than a quality assurance certifier. There are shoddy colleges with accreditation, and promising colleges that can’t get accreditation, exactly what we’d expect to see of a cartel.
Supposedly, accreditation serves two functions: quality improvement and quality assurance. Here’s the problem with combining those roles to a single all-powerful agency: You can’t be both a consultant (offering ways to improve an institution) and a regulator (determining whether that institution meets your standards).
Nor do the accrediting bodies in this nation truly achieve either of those purposes in any meaningful way.
“Nothing in the accreditation process concretely measures student learning, instructional quality, or academic standards,” says a report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Adds another paper from the same group, “one looks in vain for instances where accreditation has been denied because of low educational value to students. … Colleges and universities simply do not lose their accreditation because of a judgment by the accreditors that the curriculum is weak, the faculty poor and the students don’t learn much.”
The root cause of accreditation’s failure to assure quality is simple—to assure quality, you first must define quality. But accreditors have yet to do so, and what few standards they do have are generally unrelated to educational quality.
For example, one of the ABA’s quibbles with the UNT-D law school was that it “looks at other criteria when selecting students, such as work history, military service and what obstacles prospective students have overcome in their lives,” instead of high LSAT scores, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Yet why shouldn’t it? The LSAT is not the only predictor of law school success. “Grit,” something the UNT-D law school values in folks such as military veterans, may be a much bigger factor. Why shouldn’t the school try? Because, as the American Law Deans Association points out, an accreditation agency forces “homogeneity, and conversely stifles innovation and diversity, among law schools.”
Given the sorry state of accreditation, some reformers argue we should simply remove accreditation’s role as a gatekeeper for federal financial aid dollars. However, this would likely be a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Fly-by-night schools would proliferate, resulting is even more federal and state government intervention and interference with higher education. Instead, what we need are escape hatches, through which institutions of higher education that deliver high-quality outcomes would be free to operate and innovate, circumventing the accreditation system entirely.
Escape hatches would be alternative methods of attaining eligibility for federal student aid. Programs that meet certain outcomes thresholds would be eligible for federal financial aid programs without needing to obtain accreditation as well. We could focus on learning outcomes and labor market outcomes.
Escape hatches based on learning outcomes would be easiest to implement when there are third-party certification exams that are already used by an industry. Accountants, for example, routinely take the Certified Public Accountant exam, and lawyers typically must take the bar exam. These exams can serve as ideal outcomes measures for higher education programs.
Other escapes hatches could be based on labor market outcomes. For example, a program that generates a rate of return of 10% or that increases graduates’ median annual earnings by a certain amount could be eligible for federal financial aid.
Andrew Ratley—and his law school’s nearly 500 previous graduates—were fortunate that the law school finally gained its accreditation. But should these self-regulating agencies have so much power over so many lives? Accreditation doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. That’s why schools need escape hatches to escape an outdated, irrelevant system.