Behind the curtain: What students should know about accreditation and rankings

120414-edurating-thumbBY DEBRA RINGOLD | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

How important are institutional and/or program evaluations provided by third parties in selecting a college or university program?

Share this article!


How important are institutional and/or program evaluations provided by third parties in selecting a college or university program?


Prospective students often ask for my advice on how to use institutional and/or program evaluations provided by third parties. These third-party evaluators can be classified into two categories:  accrediting bodies and publications that provide rankings.  Both can be useful in selecting a college, university, and/or program. But in higher education, like all industries, some evaluators are more credible than others.  Just as there are diploma “mills,” there are accreditation “mills.” Similarly, close scrutiny of various ranking publications’ expertise, research design, data collection method, sample design, analysis, interpretation, and reporting reveals that some are more competent evaluators than others.

In our region, the most basic accreditation an institution can earn is provided by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. NWCCU “… is an independent, non-profit membership organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) as the regional authority on educational quality and institutional effectiveness of higher education institutions in the seven-state Northwest region of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. It fulfills its mission by establishing accreditation criteria and evaluation procedures by which institutions are reviewed.”

Nationally, accreditation of institutions or programs offering professional education is earned by a subset of regionally accredited colleges and universities.  Medical, legal, business and management, and public administration education each has its own well-recognized accrediting body.  The American Medical Association, American Bar Association, Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business–International, and Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration set the standards for professional education in their domains.  If you are considering medicine, law, business and management, or public administration programs not accredited by one of these organizations, ask the following questions suggested by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA):

  • Does the operation allow accredited status to be purchased?

  • Does the operation publish lists of institutions or programs they claim to have accredited without those institutions and programs knowing that they are listed or have been accredited?

  • Does the operation claim that it is recognized (by USDE or CHEA) when it is not?

  • Are few if any standards for quality published by the operation?

  • Is a very short period of time required to achieve accredited status?

  • Are accreditation reviews routinely confined to submitting documents and do not include site visits or interviews of key personnel by the accrediting organization?

  • Is “permanent” accreditation granted without any requirement for subsequent periodic review, either by an external body or by the organization itself?

  • Does the operation use organizational names similar to recognized accrediting organizations?

  • Does the operation make claims in its publications for which there is no evidence?

If you answer “yes” to several of these questions, the accrediting organization and the institution and/or program you are considering may be “mills.”

The second type of evaluators are those that publish rankings. The key to using institution or program rankings offered by various publications is to understand how specific rankings were developed.  Essentially, you want to know who was asked what, how they were asked, and how their answers were combined to achieve the ranking.

The Willamette University MBA has, for example, been ranked in recent years by both Businessweek and Forbes magazines. This year Businessweek ranked 85 full-time MBA programs on three measures: a survey of student satisfaction (45 percent of the ranking); a survey of employers who hire those graduates (45 percent); and the expertise of each school’s faculty, measured by faculty research in esteemed journals (10 percent). Forbes, on the other hand, ranks full-time MBA programs every two years based solely on return on investment.  

Prospective students who are focused on ROI might be well-served by looking at Forbes’ top 70 listing and the methodological discussion provided by the magazine. Those who value student satisfaction and employer evaluations of MBA programs might benefit from taking a look at Businessweek’s listing of the 85 best MBA programs in the U.S. 

It is also worth noting that all of the ranked MBA programs on either list are accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business–International and the institutions that offer them are accredited by their version of NWCCU.

Regional accreditation, professional accreditation, and magazine rankings do provide information of use in the program, college, and/or university choice process.  Higher education is a market like all others and buyers should beware.  Prospective students should take the time to learn what a particular institution’s or program’s various accreditations and rankings actually mean…to them.  

To me, regional and professional accreditation are non-negotiable attributes. Beyond that, rankings help prospective students identify a variety of other considerations that may be particularly important to them.  Campus visits, and the interactions with students, faculty, and administrators they facilitate, are the means by which these considerations can be explored, programs can be compared, and sound decisions made.

Debra Ringold is Dean and JELD WEN Professor of Free Enterprise, Atkinson Graduate School of Management, Willamette University

Latest from Oregon Business Team