Is accreditation governance or the market?

“When government lets the market fix policy problems, it often fails.”—says a recent article in Governing by Don Kettl.

 “Markets just don’t run themselves in delivering public goods, because most of the time they are being asked to do things they aren’t used to doing. And because policymakers tend to assume that the markets will take care of themselves, they often don’t build governmental capacity to steer the process. The reformers then end up running after problems as they develop down the line.”

Kettl acknowledges the innovation that can sometimes emerge through private action, while he shows some of the policy limitations using examples like the Affordable Care Act and state-based cap and trade strategies for reducing greenhouses gases.

Naturally then, from my seat as an accreditor I wonder how this logic applies to accreditation and the struggle to ensure quality in higher education.  Is accreditation the private industry or the governing body in Kettl’s framework? Higher education has been described as an industry, and the peer review involved in accreditation by design requires the participation of leading minds in higher education, which leans towards a private orientation. However, accreditation’s strong connection to the U.S. federal government and its long history of quality assurance (particularly in the professions) put it more appropriately in the governance camp, especially when compared to emerging ideas like the proposal from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to form an alternative credential approval system designed and run almost entirely by employers.

And specifically, where does an accreditor like NASPAA fit, given that the accreditation services are not in any way connected to the U.S. Department of Education or Title IV funds (ironically, given the subject area)? The fact that accreditation and its many actors can’t be defined neatly as one or the other is part of what makes regulation of higher education (and ensuring accountability for billions of dollars annually in federal student aid) so complex.

So what does all this mean? Perhaps we should return to Kettl’s caution about markets being asked to do things they aren’t used to doing, and that without government leadership this leads to an unsatisfying result for all. If we apply this notion to accreditation, the growing expectations of consumer protection and assessment of financial viability are proving to be things accreditors aren’t used to doing, nor were they designed to do so. True government capacity and expertise is needed to exert leadership in basic areas related to consumer protection and, equally important, to advance more effective partnerships with accreditation in order to allow accreditors to focus on what they are well-equipped to do, which is really both ensuring the industry need of improvement and the governance need of ensuring educational quality through student learning.