Raising the Bar on Higher Education

If you do a quick scan of the largest businesses in any developed and industrialized nation in the world you would likely see major companies and conglomerates that are industry focused and monetarily oriented. However, the facts and figures about who actually employees the largest number of individuals in the workforce is far from accurate. Take for example a 2013 article written by USA Today which cites Walmart as the largest employer in the USA with a whopping 2.2 million workers. Sounds like a lot right? Of course it is a large number of employees, but the key term here is private employers

The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics is a great place to find out any type of fact or figure you need to support information on the actual number of employees in a given class or category, and while It may come as a surprise, the number of employees cited by USA Today was still more than a million employees short of the largest business. That honor would be given to education, which may only rank second, giving the top honor to the US government. The reason education is not among the normal list of facts and figures is because it is a government sponsored business. For the same period in which Walmart was given the number one position of employing their 2.2 million workers, approximately 3.5 million teachers were employed by schools around the country. This figure does not even take into account the number of administrative and support staff that is also employed by the government to do their duties within education. 

The above cited case is part of the reason for this article on Raising the Bar on Higher Education Accreditation. Someone once said, “If you really want to know the motivation behind some business or transaction, follow the money.” Well, when you take a quick glance at the picture you will quickly realize there is a large amount of money generated through education. Along with this is the potential for even more money to be gleaned from providing qualification services to educational institutions of all types around the world. I say around the world, because the United States of America is far from the only nation in the world that has jumped on the bandwagon to take in enormous amounts of revenue from educational providers. The USA however, is the premiere nation in the world when it comes to its claims of educational superiority, even though claims can be argued as to their legitimacy.

So, how is it done? It is through the process called accreditation. While the definition and purpose of accreditation have taken on new meaning in today’s academic world, the history of accreditation was much less complicated and most likely more efficient. Regardless of the type of educational thrust to the community, you will usually find some agency or organization stamp from an accreditation provider, indicating their voluntary participation in an accreditation assessment. Rest assured that the process and procedures for this assessment come at a cost to the educational entity. In fact this is the major problem with the entire process. Today, the typical accreditation of an institution can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and with little guarantee from the agencies providing the services. By understanding the way governments fund agencies and departments providing accreditation services you will see where the problem lies.

There is no question that governments are expensive to run, and as such they designate enormous budgets on behalf of the citizens of the nation they represent. Government spending represents in many cases 60 to 80% of the entire monies spent by a nation in any given fiscal year. Under the umbrella of government control are the agencies responsible for the oversight and control of organizations that provide accrediting services to educational entities. With the vast amount of government spending there is usually little room in budgets to fund the entire operations of the head agencies providing accreditation services. Therefore, they must find the funding from other sources. This source of money comes from educational providers.

Regardless of the type of institution, whether it is a daycare, preschool, primary school, middle school, secondary school, technical school, college, or university, all require some form of organizational and educational accreditation. Many of the entities mentioned have their own budgets and financial responsibilities, and as such they must be careful in the way they spend their earnings from revenues. In addition to the myriad of business documents, operational licenses, and educational clearances, all of which are connected to government bodies in some way, there is the need of having an assessment and recognition from a designated accreditation body. Using the United States as the sample case it is possible to see exactly where the money trail leads.

The US Department of Education represents the wing of government that regulates the rules and guidelines for education in every facet to citizens of the nation. The leadership and management of this governmental wing doesn’t have time to oversee all of the activities of its educational concerns, so other agencies were established by the US Congress to carry out the primary responsibility of oversight. The two primary agencies are the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. (There may be others, but these two are the most visible) These two bodies are the gatekeepers to any and all educational providers in the United States. Without their authorization and approval in some way, educational providers have little opportunity to offer their services. 

In addition to primary government oversight, individual States throughout the nation have established their own oversight commissions and agencies to offer state accreditation. Of course the recognition of state appropriated agencies does not carry the same level of recognition as national agencies, but they are in place nonetheless for the same reasons the national agencies exist. When it comes to accreditation and the oversight of services a specific caution should apply; “Everything that glitters is not gold.” 

A survey of the numerous watchdog sources in place that provide detailed discussions on higher education institutions of all kinds and specifically, the type of accreditation they hold will help to clarify what is happening to higher education. This article is not intended to look at individual agencies and/or websites to make claims against them, but a simple Google search will reveal in detail who they are and why they exist. Normally, some direct government connection or inter-governmental connection will be revealed. So why do these watchdogs spend so much time and effort marginalizing and demonizing institutions of higher education and the non-government recognized or sponsored agencies that accredit them? In a word the answer is money. Government, government agencies, and those with an interest in government concerns want to ensure the money continues to flow the same direction as it has been designed to flow. 

Take a look at some of the facts concerning accreditation prior to the creation of CHEA in the United States. (From: Wood Science and Technology Program Accreditation in the United States)

Brief History of Accreditation prior to 1992 in the United States

  • Started before WWII
  • Real focus was the GI Bill and funding for students
  • Appropriateness of the institutional mission and objectives
  • Effectiveness of the institution in meeting its mission and objectives
  • Adequacy of financial and physical resources library, classrooms, labs, offices
  • Quality of faculty
  • Effectiveness of management, administrative structure and function
  • Adequacy of personnel and student services offered by the institution. 

Accreditation following the Establishment of CHEA in 1992 

  • Academic calendars
  • Academic catalogs
  • Academic publications
  • Academic grading
  • Academic advertising
  • Academic curricula
  • Academic faculty
  • Academic facilities, equipment, and supplies
  • Academic/Organizational student support services
  • Academic recruiting and admissions practices
  • Academic/Organizational fiscal and administrative capacities as appropriate for the scale of the institution
  • Academic program length, tuition, fees, and the objectives of the degree
  • Academic measures of program length in clock hours or credit hours
  • Academic student outcome measures
  • Student default rates
  • Organizational record of student complaints received by the accrediting association or state agency
  • Organizational compliance with program responsibilities under Title IV of the Higher Education Act
  • * Freedom of the CHEA and its associated agencies to change at will the guidelines they provide and endorse.

So from the list above it can be seen that substantive changes were made to the whole purpose and process of accreditation in 1992 when the CHEA was formed. All of the changes were made for the specific purpose of government taking greater control over higher education. The United States is not alone in its interest of higher education. Nations around the world have come on board in support of the same or similar types of policies introduced by the US Government, and all with the same purpose, keep the money flowing upward to government sponsored organizations and agencies having the blessing of government.

When looking at the legitimacy of private agencies and organizations there is a vast array of types. It seems in the quest to enter the playing field for accreditation, many individuals, groups and organizations have attempted to make their mark on education. There is no denying that not every agency providing academic assessment and accreditation services around the world is doing things legally or ethically, however, many are. Unfortunately, the US government keeps a constant watch on these agencies and will stop at nothing in defaming or ruining the reputation of legitimate agencies offering their services to higher education. So the question is “Who decides what is legitimate and what is not?” The CHEA website states that its agency is not responsible for the oversight and control of international accrediting organizations. Yet the agency maintains a list of national and international unrecognized accrediting organizations and accreditation mills.

Some countries have provided an alternative to organizations offering their assessment and accreditation services within a given nation based on Congressional Acts and Laws which provide leeway for such activities. Also, it appears that religious affiliated organizations are also given a measure of leeway in the offering of organizational and academic assessment and accreditation. However, the continued assault on independent organizations offering their international services continues, and all the while the recognized providers keep pressure on institutions of higher education to conform, pay the money, or cease to operate. 

As it stands right now the options for legitimate institutions of higher education seeking to be formally assessed and accredited by an International agency are limited. Unless governments are willing to take a serious look at the black hole created through the workings of certain nations and provide a fix for the problem that exists, the hope for sustainable educational development, growth and outreach will be impossible to achieve. It is time for educational Institutions around the world to bind together and create viable alternatives to the money flow problem that exists in the name of providing higher education assessment and accreditation.

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