October 30, 2013 3 min read

Accreditation in education is a joke – but it is a joke with teeth, and that is where my concern lies. And while only some students care about accreditation itself, almost all students care about business school rankings  – and to be ranked, a school is required to have accreditation.

In many states, like California, practically any mom and pop organization can find the accreditation necessary to confer degrees on students.  The current system is a bad joke when it comes to keeping out charlatans at the low end. In fact, this is perhaps the one area where accreditation could actually do some good—it could do a much better job at preventing shoddy education in the first place, to ensure that students paying (often using government loans) for an education really have the potential to learn something.

But accreditation at the elite levels of education is insidiously stultifying. At these levels, accreditation deserves to be discredited. Organizations like AACSB, AMBA, and EQUIS are run like industry guilds.  There was a time when guilds ruled the business world.  Groups of incumbent business people—in an attempt to increase their own profits and remove the threat of new entrants into their businesses—legislated that all companies of a similar ilk do everything the same way. Changes were only possible with the permission of the most powerful participants in the guilds.  All of this was done “to ensure the highest quality.” But if you look at the actual accreditation process, you’d realize that this is hardly happening. 

What does happen is this: If you apply to be accredited, a committee of professors from other universities will show up to assess if you are worthy to join the guild. (And then again, every three to four years to make sure you can stay in the guild.)  These accreditors are people you have never heard of. They have been chosen by their home schools to be the representatives to the accreditor because they can be spared—they aren’t particularly valuable as teachers or as researcher or even as administrators. They are usually still on the payroll because they are tenured—in other words, they can’t be fired—but they do not add much value in any way. 

The accreditation committee then interviews everyone at the school and asks for reams of paperwork to be completed, consuming countless hours and resources that could be better spent teaching students. (One anonymous source told me that for their institution, accreditation was the equivalent of a multi-million dollar tax that did nothing for either students or employers.) The school requesting accreditation often assigns one or more professors to manage the whole process full-time for years on end, and then brings in scores of other faculty and staff whenever the site visits take place.

I have never been assigned as the faculty representative on either side of an accreditation, but I can report on questions I have heard during site visits:

  • “Don’t you think you have too many Indian students?”
  • “Can you really call yourself a school if your library is mostly digital?”
  • “Why doesn’t that fountain work?  When will it be turned back on?”

There are some valid and valuable things that accreditors could do—but accreditors don’t normally do those things. They could ensure that students who get degrees are actually learning something, but instead they focus on mind-numbing syllabus standardization, PhD ratios, and number of articles published—none of which have any proven link to good education. The currently inept accreditation system—a bad joke—will only improve if more schools just follow the advice of another (good) joke from the famous Groucho Marx: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” (Groucho and Me, 1959, p. 321)

see Steve Hodge’s take on accreditation at: http://bizedreboot.ning.com/steve-vs-john/accreditation

photo: Elliot Brown, flickr