Last week when I asked a classroom full of Georgia State University students why they didn’t apply to Everest College, I got a range of giggles and choruses of “I don’t need to get off my couch!” That’s standard. So, too, was the inevitable response from the young woman in the back: “Because they’re, like…they’re not accredited. I mean, I don’t know how accreditation works but…they don’t have it so…you won’t be able to get a job with that degree.”
That student touched on a familiar conflation of accreditation in higher education with some metric of quality and/or legitimacy.
Lest you think this is a function of her status of a college student, let me be clear. I hear the same conflation from professors, administrators, and senior colleagues all the time.
Indeed, unless you research higher education it is likely that you have a similar sense that accreditation is the primary mechanism for ensuring legitimate, quality college credentials.
That’s not exactly true.
Accreditation is an interesting regulatory function. It doesn’t have the government oversight we seem to think it has. Most are small, non-profit entities. Through the years they’ve been sensitive to the same ideological tradewinds that have impacted all public policy. From being passive rubberstampers during neo-liberal re-imaginings of education to enacting regional differences in racialized higher education policy, accreditation bodies have undergone a lot of change. Indeed, HBCUs once had similar issues with accreditation to those being faced by for-profits today.
As a sociologist, I have argued that the real barrier the for-profit sector has faced in it’s integration into the higher education field has not been accreditation but what laypeople think accreditation means: legitimacy.
I argue in my latest piece in Inside Higher Education that the for-profit sector found it difficult to manufacture a sense that they are a legitimate, “real” college, as my young student alludes to above. You can’t manufacture legitimacy and public opinion quite so easily as you can buildings, curricula and market buzz.
The proposed CA bill that would mandate all state universities accept transfer credit hours from for-profit college providers could short-circuit the legitimacy issue for many for-profits. The bill is presented as a solution that enables MOOCs, the darlings of the market elite. But, there is nothing in the provision that would not extend that right to all for-profits.
Despite the sector’s phenomenal growth and financial prowess it has, to date, been unable to crack the perception that for-profit college credentials are inferior to “real” college degrees. It would seem that they could build it, the people could come, and they could even bring their federal aid, but they could not make for-profit education prestigious.
A California bill proposed last week could end up giving for-profit institutions that have never sought or won accreditation a new kind of legitimacy.
No judgement calls here, just the way I see it. Whether you think this is a net positive or the beginning of the end for elite public universities, I think it portends the potential of fundamental change either way.