Bush push to publish accreditation

August 13, 2004

The Bush Administration and Republicans in the US Congress want university accreditation reports - mostly confidential - to be made available to students and their parents.

For more than a century, no one has monitored university quality except associations of the universities themselves, in a secretive accreditation process that is largely independent of the Government.

The universities and accrediting associations fear that publication would discourage schools from being forthright with accreditors - and open the accreditors to lawsuits if they are publicly identified as having filed negative evaluations.

The controversy over the accrediting process has ignited a debate about the question of how universities, whose tuition fees are rocketing and graduation rates are dropping, should be regulated.

The debate is so divisive that the two major organisations representing accrediting agencies are taking opposite sides.

University officials and some accreditors say they are willing to accept requirements that certain statistics be made public, including graduate success rates.

"The accreditation system is not perfect," said Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee.

"While it may be a uniquely American institution, it is also one that all too often perpetuates the status quo on campuses."

"Low graduation rates may be compounded by the fact that parents and students lack the necessary information to determine whether a particular college or university is a quality institution or appears to meet the needs of that particular student," Congressman McKeon said.

But others complain that this would encourage unfair comparisons of dissimilar universities. They say it is sufficient for the public to know whether a school is accredited or not, and the standards and procedures used to evaluate it.

This response is sharply derided by university critics.

"In a nutshell," the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a conservative higher education watchdog group, says in a report, "accreditation gives students, parents and public decision-makers almost no useful information about institutions of higher education."

University accreditation began in 1885 when administrators of legitimate universities were looking for a way to distinguish themselves from less respectable competitors. They established accrediting agencies, which arrange voluntary peer reviews.

Professional programmes are separately accredited by more than 70 professional associations, such as the American Bar Association.

Unless a school fails to meet accreditation standards altogether, the results of these evaluations are not made public. But they are vital. While no law requires them to be accredited, schools without accreditation are not eligible for any of the more than $60 billion a year (£33 billion) earmarked by the Federal Government for higher education.

The proposed College Access and Opportunity Act follows the administration's campaign to hold public primary and secondary schools more accountable for the success of their students.

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