Accreditation is expensive. Cedarville continues to shell out money every year to keep the university up to date on accreditation regulations. But what is accreditation and is it worth the cost?
Accreditation is a process used to determine the quality and integrity of education in America. This process requires schools to meet and maintain certain standards in academics, administration and related services to be accredited.
The Department of Education is adding more regulations and putting significant pressure on regional accrediting agencies like the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association. These regulations impact schools and students by increasing costs.
In fact, according to Thomas Cornman, academic vice president and chief academic officer, Cedarville has 12 different accreditors that they have to pay, write reports to and make corrections for to keep up to date on accreditation. Although the exact costs aren’t calculated, Cedarville spends about half a million dollars on accreditation a year.
Why Accreditation Is Necessary
“The government is engaging in more and more regulation of education,” Cornman said. “We have to keep on top of that because accreditation is tied to those regulations.”
While accreditation raises costs at universities, students need it to help pay for school. If a university is not regionally accredited, then its students can’t get federal financial aid, also known as Title IV funds. Title IV originated in the Higher Education Act of 1965.
“Basically the only way you’re able to participate in federal aid is your institution has to be approved by an approved accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education,” said Kim Jenerette, Cedarville’s executive director of financial aid.
Jenerette said Cedarville has to report the use of all federal aid and show the reports to auditors annually. If the reports are not done in a timely manner, Cedarville could lose its eligibility for Title IV funds. This loan money, Cornman said, accounts for funding approximately 20 percent of Cedarville’s annual budget.
“We have over $20 million worth of loans that we have to reconcile to the penny,” Jenerette said. “It is quite an undertaking.”
Sean Creighton, executive director of the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education, said he has seen schools ranging from vocational schools to 4-year universities struggle with the accreditation process.
“(Accreditation) often seems like a hardship to institutions,” he said. “But it does distinguish them from institutions that are not accredited and allows them to receive financial aid, and it provides some level of accountability among higher education.”’
The Costs of Accreditation
Cedarville pays $30,000 for the department of engineering and computer science to be accredited. They also pay for the travel and associated expenses for the accreditors to visit campus, said Michael Kane, the associate dean of assessment and accreditation services. Cornman said one visit from the pharmacy accreditor cost Cedarville an estimated $30,000.
Cedarville also pays $1,000 per major to the Ohio Board of Regents, Ohio’s board of higher education, Kane said. He said in addition to that, Cedarville pays the Higher Learning Commission $2,900 for visits from the board and $825 for desk review fees whenever they are required.
In addition to paying for each visit from each accreditor, Cedarville pays dues each year to the various accreditors, Cornman said. Every year, Cedarville budgets about $40,000 for these fees and dues, Kane said.
Kane said over the past year, Cedarville has paid $47,000 to the Ohio Board of Regents in direct expenses. He said that though they have paid that directly, Cedarville has two people working on accreditation full time and one working part time, along with some people in other departments assisting. The salaries for those people also contribute to the overall cost of accreditation at Cedarville.
Because of the various costs Cedarville has to pay in addition to the salaries for its employees working on accreditation, it is hard to put a firm price tag on accreditation expenses, Kane said.
“There’s so many hidden things and so many variances,” Kane said. “I don’t think anyone’s done any study on it. And of course, the Department of Education doesn’t want people to think about it. They just see it as the cost of doing business, you know. They don’t see it as a problem, since they’re not paying for it.”
“I would guess by the time we’re all said and done,” Cornman said, “(Cedarville spends) at least at five, six hundred thousand dollars a year for all the different accreditation activities and then the assessment we have to do to maintain our accreditations.”
Types of Accreditation
Schools can be accredited in a few different ways. Kane said there are different levels of accreditation: regional, national and specialized. Regional accreditors take the lead, he said, and there are six different regions, each with its own accreditor.
“The thing that’s common across all the different regional accrediting bodies is a peer-evaluation system,” said Felice Nudelman, chancellor of Antioch University. “And so there’s a level of fairness and being reviewed by people who are in the industry who know education.”
National accreditors, of which there are over 400, are smaller agencies than the regional accreditors. Being nationally accredited, Kane said, is generally not as good as having regional accreditation. Cedarville’s general practice had been to only accept credit transfers from regionally accredited schools. But federal law no longer allows a school to reject transfer requests just because the school was not regionally accredited.
“It’s ‘buyer beware’ on these kinds of accreditation,” he said. “You’ve got to look at them. There’s a certain level of rigor, but because the federal government feels beholden to be consistent, if you hit the line, you’ve met the obligation. The quality of it may be different, but you’ve hit the line.”
Specialized accreditation, Kane said, focuses on a specific program or school like engineering or education. Kane said specialized accreditation focuses on looking at what kind of courses are offered, the outcome of the program and if there are proper student/teacher ratios. Several of Cedarville’s programs, including the nursing program and school of education, are accredited through a specialized agency.
Unfortunately, Kane said, these agencies are only concerned that their specific program meets their requirements and are not concerned with consistent qualifications through the whole school.
According to a book Kane has read, titled “Who Controls Education?”, some believe that these specialized accrediting agencies have too much control.
“The premise of the book,” he said, “is that specialized accrediting agencies are controlling the education product to an unnecessary extent.”
Another debate in accreditation involves regional accreditation, Nudelman said. Because of the regional nature of this type of accreditation, she said, there are different accrediting bodies in each region and each has its own guidelines and criteria.
“One of the biggest questions that I see now in terms of accreditation is, ‘Is a regional system of accreditation good, or do you go to a national system?’” Nudelman said. “That’s sort of the big debate right now.”
Future of Accreditation
Currently, there are a couple schools of thought in accreditation, Nudelman said.
“You have some that are just saying we could move to a fully quantitative system, it’s just based on the numbers,” she said.
This quantitative system proposes changes to the Higher Education Act of 1965. Instead of only being regionally accredited, schools would need to meet the following four criteria to be eligible for Title IV funds:
- The school’s numbers indicate they graduated a certain number of students.
- After a certain period of time, graduates are employed in the fields they majored in.
- The school’s student loan default rates are at an acceptable level.
- The school can demonstrate that students are progressing and graduating within the acceptable time frame.
“That argument’s being made that it’s totally performance-based,” Nudelman said. “There’s a whole group in higher ed and outside of higher ed that’s pushing for that type of ‘get rid of regional accreditation and go for that.’”
Nudelman said schools are missing part of the story if they’re going in that direction, and there’s a significant thing that happens when peers review each other.
“I think you need both,” Nudelman said. “I think you need the numbers. I think you need to show evidence of performance, but you do need to stand in front of your peers and show evidence of who you are as an institution.”
There are certain intangibles of institutions that wouldn’t show up on strict performance-based data but that make them unique, sustainable and desirable, Nudelman said. When peers understand the nature and mission of an institution, they look beyond the numbers to the intangibles.
“They’re looking at it in the context of what does your institution do to further that type of education and public purpose in society,” Nudelman said. “It’s hard to see that when you’re just playing it by the numbers.”
One aspect of the quantitative approach President Barack Obama wants to focus on is affordability and rewarding the more affordable schools with more federal funding. In a speech, Obama asked Congress to consider affordability when accrediting. Obama warned colleges in his 2013 State of the Union address to “either control costs or lose federal money.”
Obama’s dedication to making higher education more affordable could lead to more costs associated with accreditation regulation. While some schools may become more affordable, it could lead to limited choices for students using federal loans because the cost of staying accredited could be too much for some schools.
When asked about the future of accreditation and how it will affect Cedarville, Cornman just laughs. He said there will be many new regulations because of Obama’s new plan to make college more affordable, but Cornman’s not exactly sure how everything will play out.
Cornman, like Nudelman, foresees Cedarville having to track how many major-specific jobs graduates receive. He said Title IV funds might also eventually be based on affordability and job placement. Already, the government has developed a scorecard to help evaluate colleges as part of Obama’s plan to make college more affordable.
“The deck is kind of stacked against us,” Cornman said, “because we cost more than public (universities).”
State Approval Requirements for Online Courses Raises Higher Ed Costs
Being approved to offer online courses across state lines does not require further accreditation, but it is a difficult and costly process, said Cedarville administrators Michael Kane and Thomas Cornman.
The U.S. Constitution grants individual power over education to each state.
“States get to determine how they will regulate education within their borders,” said Cornman, academic vice president and chief academic officer at Cedarville.
This means that each state has different regulations for higher education that schools must abide by to offer courses to students living in those states, Cornman said. The only requirement, he said, is that states have to meet the minimum standard of federal regulations. There is no consistency required among state regulations.
Kane, associate dean of assessment and accreditation services, said state approval is required in every state in which the school has a physical presence. The struggle with this, Kane said, is that each state defines physical presence differently, creating difficulties for schools seeking approval. Some states define physical presence as an actual campus within the state, while others include online and billboard advertising in the definition, Cornman said.
This has become an issue, especially with online education, Kane said. If students in a specific state take online courses through a school, he said, that institution is required to pay thousands of dollars in costs and annual fees to get approval in that state, even if only a few students take the course.
Since 2010, a federal law has required schools to have state-by-state authorization, even if the schools only have an online presence.
Kane said these regulations and complications are making it hard for Cedarville to offer online programs. There is a high financial cost required and a significant risk involved in accrediting programs, Kane said, because there are no refunds from states where students drop out of the courses.
Organizations, called compacts, are working to lessen the hassles of state approval, said Felice Nudelman, chancellor of Antioch University.
“The Western compact – WICHE – got together all those states,” she said, “and passed and agreed on something called SARA — the State Authorization (Reciprocity Agreement). It says everyone in this compact can do business with one another as long as you’re an accredited institution.”
Nudelman said the goal is to unite all of the compacts, and thus all the states, and share guidelines, making it easier for schools to do business across state lines.
The process, which would enable schools to get approval in over 40 states, she said, would cost about $250,000-350,000 per year, but could be worth it for the money made through online programs.
“The question is ‘How much would you make from online?’” she said. “It’s a lot of money, and that’s why the compacts are so important.”
— Emily Finlay
Accreditation and Its History
Philosophically, going back to colleges in the Middle Ages, universities have never been just about jobs. They’ve been about educating people, said Thomas Cornman, Cedarville’s academic vice president.
“It was about creating an educated citizenry who can engage in the work of running government and understanding culture,” Cornman said. “It’s only really been since the 1960s that … the primary purpose of going to college is to secure a particular job.”
Cornman said the philosophical shift has changed what people value. No longer are people generally looking to come to college to become a well-rounded individual. Instead they are coming to college to get training for a particular profession. So naturally, this has caused schools to prepare students more for the job market. And the system that has arrived is the accreditation system of evaluation to ensure a quality education.
Higher education didn’t always have accreditation. Michael Kane, associate dean of assessment and accreditation services at Cedarville, said accreditation didn’t become popular until the late 1800s.
But according to Kane, accreditation wasn’t a governmental idea. It was the schools. They banded together to develop a system of measurement to ensure a quality education was being provided at each school. The group of schools evaluated on a peer-review system. The accreditation started out regionally (which is what Cedarville has today), but eventually it grew to form a national accreditation standard as well. By the 1930s, accreditation procedures and guidelines became a well-known and established part of the education system.
Then, in the late 1940s, the GI Bill of Rights was passed, providing soldiers with the funds and ability to attend college. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans accounted for 49 percent of college admissions in 1947.
This bill changed the higher education system in America, as the number of colleges almost doubled after it was passed, Kane said. The government was unprepared to handle the influx of students and asked the accrediting agencies to assume the responsibility of assuring the quality of schools in higher education.
The accrediting agencies had not planned to fulfill this role as they were voluntary, non-profit and not beholden directly to the government, Kane said, but they did agree. This system continued to work well through the 1990s, Kane said.
Today, in addition to regional accreditation, the emphasis on being trained for a specific job has led to specialized accreditation for job-specific majors like engineering, nursing and social work.
In the United States, there are two distinct kinds of education accreditation, according to the Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors (ASPA). One of these two is programmatic accreditation (also known as specialized accreditation), which conducts an in-depth assessment of specialized of professional programs at a college, university or independent institution.
Universities as a whole do not receive specialized accreditation— only colleges or schools within a university or a program within a specific discipline can get specialized accreditation.
Specially accredited programs are generally in-depth for a profession or a focused area of study and are developed in consultation with experts from that specific field and with other communities of interest.
Programs are reviewed for specialized accreditation to make sure they have appropriate content, qualified faculty and adequate resources to meet the standards. The reviewers are primarily practitioners and academics who are peers for the program being reviewed.
— Lauren Eissler and Madison Troyer
GI Bill Increased Educational Costs
More students leads to more rules to promote quality
The United States began helping veterans attend college through the passage of the GI Bill and continues to give financial help to veterans attending college. The introduction of the GI Bill brought about the need for improvements in accreditation in U.S. higher education.
As World War II veterans were returning home to a mostly rural and labor-oriented country, many wanted more than rural schooling, said Michael Kane, associate dean of assessment and accreditation services at Cedarville. The former soldiers had developed leadership skills and matured during the war and now desired a better education.
This education became a possibility when the GI Bill was passed in 1944, in an effort to help veterans assimilate into civilian life.
“The country felt that they owed their soldiers a certain amount of compensation,” Kane said.
The bill provided veterans with financial assistance for college costs and was administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. One hundred percent of school costs, not including housing, was paid by the government, enabling many to attend who might not have been able to otherwise.
After the bill was passed, the number of colleges almost doubled and the government was overwhelmed by the influx of students. Kane said it was at this time that the government turned to accreditation agencies for help to ensure the quality of the quickly growing number of schools.
The original bill ended on July 25, 1956, having provided 7.8 million of the 16 million veterans with an education, according to the Veterans Administration. The program was revamped in 1984 by Mississippi congressman Gillespie V. Montgomery.
The Montgomery GI Bill, as it is now known, was updated again in 2008. According to the VA, the updated bill “gives veterans with active duty service on, or after, Sept. 11, 2001, enhanced educational benefits that cover more educational expenses, provide a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused education benefits to spouses or children.”
At Cedarville, military students can receive aid through the GI Bill and through ROTC scholarships, said Kim Jenerette, executive director of financial aid. The university is also a “Yellow Ribbon” school, which means that it works with the VA to provide military students with tuition funds not covered by the GI Bill.
“Yellow Ribbon institutions say, ‘Hey, with the help of the VA, we’ll make up the difference,’” Jenerette said.
— Emily Finlay
The Fall 2013 Investigative Reporting class of Lauren Eissler, Emily Finlay and Madison Troyer reported and wrote this story. Jeff Gilbert taught the class.
Lauren Eissler is a junior journalism major and assistant managing editor and campus news editor for Cedars. She essentially lives in the J-Lab, with her caffeine intake roughly corresponding to how many articles she’s writing, and tweets as @L_Eissler.
Emily Finlay is a junior journalism major and a reporter for Cedars. She loves writing, reading and every type of geekery and hopes to eventually write for the National Geographic.
Madison Troyer is a senior journalism major and a copy editor for Cedars. She plans to go to law school and is a third-year Printy RA.