s a college administrator, Mr. Daniels has also taken notice of the bureaucratic accreditation process that is a prerequisite for receiving federal funds. Six regional groups blessed by the Education Department, as well as a coterie of program-specific organizations, sign off on an institution’s programs. The ostensible goal when Congress coupled federal funding with accreditation in the 1952 G.I. Bill was to protect students from colleges hawking worthless degrees.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, universities devote considerable resources to a useless process. Almost no institution misses the mark, and since accreditation is done geographically, an upper-tier school like Purdue is accredited by the same agency that has given accreditation to Indiana University East, where the six-year graduation rate is about 18%.
Purdue pays $150,000 annually in direct accreditation fees, working with any combination of 17 agencies—but that doesn’t include time. Stanford University Provost John Etchemendy said in a 2011 letter that the school spent $849,000 in one year of a multiyear accreditation. “One suspects you have some basic inertia and some folks would rather spend their time being busy with this than doing something more productive,” Mr. Daniels says with a faint smile. “I refer of course to the people on other campuses.”
‘All this time and money and in the end some really lousy schools get accredited, so I’m not sure what the student—the consumer—learns. An awful lot of make work involved, or so it seems,” he says. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) is considering reforms, including untangling accreditation from federal funding, an idea that Mr. Daniels says “ought to be looked at.”