Tag Archives: accreditation

The Agenda behind the Attack on UVa’s Accreditation

“New Pew Research Center data show that a large majority of Americans think U.S. colleges and universities offer only fair or poor value for the financial cost – but college presidents strikingly disagree, with a majority of them thinking college offers at least a good value … I think a lot of this attitudinal divide relates to the non-market environment in which colleges operate. How do you become a successful college president? You raise lots of money, which you then use to bribe the various constituents in the university community to keep them happy.” — Richard Vedder

by Reed Fawell III

The Southern Association of Colleges and Universities (SACU) is threatening to revoke the University of Virginia’s accreditation on the grounds that the Board of Visitors improperly removed President Teresa Sullivan last year. Why does this obscure organization propose to dictate governance policy to one of the oldest and most respected universities in the country?

There are many reasons.  But the root cause is profoundly disturbing: College presidents, who control SACU, are using the accreditation agency as their Trojan horse to strip Virginia state officials and the University’s Board of Visitors of their power to run their flagship state university and to grab that power for themselves.

It’s a brazen coup.  College administrators want unlimited control of our state colleges.  To seize it, they want to overturn the power of state officials and boards, which from time immemorial have hired, supervised, and removed them. Their chosen vehicle is the SACU, which can impose the ultimate sanction. By denying accreditation, required for students to qualify for federal loans, the association can eviscerate any university’s finances.

Most frightening of all, this coup is being engineered by the small cadre of presidents who run not only SACU but many of the nation’s most dysfunctional schools.  Schools with abysmal test scores, schools where most students do not graduate.  Schools that promote rampant grade inflation to hide their failure to provide students with a decent education.  Schools that encourage non-essential courses that prop up income but delay students’ graduation. Schools that saddle students with debt to pay for the education they often failed to receive… but need to pay off that debt.

In short, these schools set kids up for failure and mortgage their future — and the nation’s future as well. It’s a corrupt system. It’s destroying our kids.

And the college presidents who built this system now want to control our institutions of higher learning lock stock and barrel.  Thus, they can avoid accountability and maintain the dismal status quo, largely at taxpayer expense, after depleting the savings of students and parents alike.

Most brazen of all, these college presidents are using the banner of accreditation, integrity and quality to pull off the heist at the university that Thomas Jefferson built!

Why target the University of Virginia?  Because the Board of Visitors launched a determined push to fix today’s broken system by finding new ways to bring affordable high quality education to more students than ever.  This poses an existential threat to those institutions now failing their students, and the nation as well.

But this assault on the University is not the presidents’ only line of attack.  The college presidents are using SACU’s mindlessly oppressive regulation to control other people’s colleges and universities as well.  Try to read SACU’s various regulatory documents.  They’re frightening in scope, detail, and intrusive power.  Note how these documents try to regulate, control and limit the power of college boards — and how few few restrictions they impose on the power and authority of college presidents.  Clearly, the objective is to to enlarge the power of of the presidents at the expense of both the board and the faculty.  Why?  It’s obvious why.  The college presidents wrote these documents, and the SACU enforces them.

The SACU also wields immense investigatory power over the faculty.  Its rules place enormous burden on the faculty to prove compliance with SACU’s dictates, even to the point of defining the proper social attitudes that will be extended to the investigators.  See the 140 page single space small font “Documenting Compliance, Handbook for Institutions Seeking Reaffirmation” pages 25-30 for insight into the coercive regime imposed on faculty.  Scholars are treated as imbeciles under this text.  And Boards of Trustees fare hardly any better.

Start your reading with SACU’s 140-page, single-spaced, small-font Resource Manual for the Principals of AccreditationIt interprets SACU’s 43-page Principles of Accreditation.

Both these documents purport to lay down “Foundations of Quality.” What they accomplish is to seize control of colleges and universities from boards of trustees, state officials and faculty and vest that control in college and university presidents.

SACU regulations inhibit innovation in areas such as distance learning without an elaborately tedious approval process that provide state college presidents  a multitude of ways to thwart change.  You can be assured they will do so if such innovation threatens their schools by offering their students a better educational alternative, as it almost surely will.

Hey, Accreditors, Pick a Better Target!

Former Senator Hank Brown has joined the ranks of those — led first by Reed Fawell here in Bacon’s Rebellion — who question whether the Southern Association of Colleges (SACS) accrediting agency has any business instructing the University of Virginia on the fine points of university governance. In today’s Wall Street Journal, he reinforces several points that Fawell made in his three-column treatment here. Writes Brown:

Accreditors are supposed to protect students and taxpayers by ensuring that federal aid flows only to schools with “educational quality.” But accreditors increasingly interfere in institutional decision-making and use their bully authority to tie the hands of colleges and universities. Frankly, there’s nothing more intimidating to schools—public or private—than the threat of losing accreditation and with it federal financial aid. That’s why most presidents and trustees quietly accede to accreditors’ demands.

When it comes to accreditors’ real assignment—ensuring educational quality—the record is dismal. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, conducted by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the literacy of college-educated citizens dropped significantly between 1992 and 2003. Of college graduates, only 31% were classified as proficient in reading compared with 40% in 1992.

Academic rigor has also declined, evidenced by rampant grade inflation. Fully 43% of all grades at four-year universities today are As. Given this low bar, it is perhaps not surprising that the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that a majority of four-year college graduates—yes, college graduates—were unable to satisfactorily compare two editorials or compute and compare the cost per ounce of food items. Is it any wonder that employers consistently report that college graduates lack the skills and knowledge needed for America to compete in the global work force?

Under the accreditors’ watch, student-loan debt in the United States has topped a trillion dollars, exceeding that of credit-card debt. That’s outrageous. Yet taxpayer dollars are still on the line, as the student-loan default rate climbs, and students continue to borrow and borrow. This serves neither the interests of taxpayers nor students. By almost any measure, the accreditation system designed to protect the taxpayer and ensure quality is a public policy and regulatory failure.

Only 31% of college-educated adults are proficient in reading? Holy F******* S***! This country is worse off than I thought — and that’s saying something because I haven’t exactly been Mr. Happy these days!

Thousands of college students are graduating (or all-too-often failing to graduate) from college without mastering basic proficiencies — and they’re racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student debt in the process. Why is this not a national scandal? And why the heck is SACS meddling with the UVa board of trustees instead of focusing on its real job?


Accreditor Meddling Draws Rebuke


Some readers may have wondered if I had lost my marbles by hosting a series of posts by contributor Reed Fawell questioning a decision of  regional accrediting agency to inject itself into a governance controversy between the University of Virginia’s president and its Board of Trustees. (See here, here and here.) Now comes news that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has taken a similarly dim view.

Indeed, ACTA has requested that the U.S. Department of Education initiate an investigation into a decision by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges (SACS) decision to put UVa on warning for an alleged breakdown in governance procedures when the board forced President Teresa Sullivan to submit her resignation last summer. Sullivan was subsequently reinstated amid calls that Rector Helen Dragas be compelled to resign her post as chief of the board.

“We believe there is substantial reason to believe that the accreditor has inappropriately become involved in a power struggle between the president, faculty and the board of trustees, and urge you to investigate,” said Anne D. Neal, ACTA president, in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

According to reporting by the Associated Press, Neal said it was “ludicrous” for  SACS to suggest that the board should give advance notice to the Senate Faculty of a decision to fire a president. “It appears that SACS’ real issue is not the absence of a board policy but the substance of the board’s policy,” Neal wrote.

To reiterate my personal stance: Dragas made significant procedural mistakes in handling Sullivan’s firing but that’s UVa’s problem to work out, not SACS’.


Inquisitor, Investigate Thyself

The Southern Commission on Colleges has far better subjects for its oversight activities than the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors.

by Reed Fawell III

Despite the fracas last summer between University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors and President Teresa Sullivan, or perhaps because of it, the university has charted a bold new course, as reflected in its recently published 2012-2013 Consolidated Budget.

Budgets are rarely inspirational. This one is. Setting a new direction for the 193-year-old institution, the budget is detailed and comprehensive, even in summary. It’s also blunt, perceptive, targeted, and visionary. The university is initiating a new financial model that facilitates multi-year strategic planning, integrates University-wide functions, identifies opportunities to grow revenues and finds efficiencies to contain costs. The budget aims to strengthen faculty by increasing pay and recruiting new professors. It incorporates distance learning. If there’s a huge problem with UVa’s governance system, it’s not readily apparent.

Given the progress made at UVa since Sullivan’s reinstatement, why has the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (the “Southern Commission”) chosen this moment to investigate the integrity of the university’s Board of Visitors? Why would it mention publicly that one possible outcome of its review could be dis-accreditation — a drastic sanction that, among other repercussions, would render University students ineligible for federal loans and grants? Upon what basis does the organization claim the powers of a grand inquisitor standing in judgment of the board?

The assertiveness of the Southern Commission is all the more remarkable considering that the University consistently ranks among the top two or three most prestigious public universities in the country, far exceeding the minimal academic standards required for accreditation. Moreover, Kiplinger ranks UVa ranks number one among the nation’s public institutions for serving students in financial need. The publication uses three criteria: the cost of a degree versus its value to the student, the certainty of timely graduation, and the value of Virginia’s aid package to the student. Meeting these standards assures needy students the best-quality education at the lowest price and positions them to quickly pay off their loans.

Using these tests, the University ranks #1 nationally in graduating students on time. It’s tied with UNC for #1 aid package. It’s ranked #3 in overall value nationally among public institutions, irrespective of student need. Only UVa and UNC in Kiplinger’s ranking meet the full financial needs of enrolled students. Average annual cost for in-need students overall is only $5,138.

By nearly all measures, UVa out-performs every other public college and university, except UNC, under the Southern Commission’s purview. Yet accreditation issues are rampant among many of the Commission’s member institutions, particularly the extent of student loans and grants. College costs and student debt are soaring. Nationally, total student debt exceeds credit card debt, surpassing $1 trillion and increasing at the rate of $100 billion annually.

These cost are rising even among students graduating on time. But most don’t. Many colleges accredited by the Southern Commission graduate fewer than 25% of those who enroll. Many take six years to earn a four-year degree, dramatically increasing their cost and debt — and they’re the lucky ones. At least they get a degree. Others simply get a bill. Dropout rates are scandalous. Many students pay for years before dropping out. Of those who do manage to graduate, some discover that they have earned worthless degrees. Forty-five percent of students learn “nothing” their first two years at college, and 36% have still learned nothing after four years, according to Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa who tested 2,300 students from the Class of 2009 that attended 24 accredited colleges. (See “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”) Read more.

The Puppet Masters of Decatur

Image credit: Jordan Adams

UVa’s accreditation by the Southern Commission on Colleges comes with lots of strings.

by Reed Fawell

A few days ago, we asked the question, “Who runs UVa?”, highlighting the little-known Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCC), a regional accrediting organization that presumes to pass judgment on the University of Virginia’s governance practices.

Why should one of the nation’s most prestigious universities care what an obscure group based in Decatur, Ga., and representing 800 mostly obscure colleges and universities, has to say about the way it runs its affairs? After all, membership is voluntary, is it not? UVa is free to seek accreditation elsewhere. It’s not as if, with its prestigious standing in the higher education community, UVa really needs the stamp of approval from an accrediting agency whose function is to monitor marginal and failing institutions, does it?

The answer is simple: Without SACSCC accreditation, University of Virginia students are no longer eligible to receive federal student loans. According to the Project on Student Debt, 35% of all Wahoos graduate with student debt averaging $21,000 per borrower. Of that, 83% is federal debt. Add it all up, and federal loans account for roughly $154 million in a $2.6 billion budget and compares to $95 million allocated to AccessUVa, the university’s own student aid program.

How did the SACSCC and other accrediting groups become so powerful?

Educational institutions first began to regulate themselves in the 19th Century. Organizations, such as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools founded in 1895, arose to certify that members adhered to an agreed-upon set of standards. By subjecting themselves voluntarily to such regimes of accreditation, members could distinguish themselves from the proliferating number of “schools” proclaiming themselves to be “colleges.” Certification by a select group of peers bestowed a badge of distinction that conferred a competitive advantage in a crowded field.

Because membership was voluntary, associations’ enforcement powers were limited. Members could leave at any time for any reason. Thus, associations served at the pleasure of its members. The system thereby provided a common-sense restraint on impractical, burdensome or expensive regulatory oversight while assuring students (and their employers) a measure of quality before they invested time, money and effort to earn a degree from a member institution.

This system of accreditation began to change in the early 1950s when Congress limited federal aid under the G.I. Bill to students attending institutions accredited by agencies approved by the federal government after its own systematic review, approval and oversight – when Washington, in effect, began to accredit the accreditors.

This shift abruptly endowed “approved” accrediting associations with new powers. As federal grants and student aid increased over the years, colleges grew ever more dependent on federal funding and those few accrediting agencies that assured access to it. As student funding became ever more dependent upon federal involvement, the accrediting agencies gained ever more power over their members. Read More.