Conflicting Interests

John D. Wiley:

Having said all this, let me turn, now, to some of the reasons for the growing public cries for better accountability, and some of the problems I think we need to address in our system of self-regulation:
1. Even in the best-performing universities, there is still considerable room for improvement. To mention one high-visibility area, I think it is nothing short of scandalous that, in 2006, the average six-year graduation rate is only around 50 percent nationwide. Either we are doing a disservice to under-prepared or unqualified students by admitting them in the first place, or we are failing perfectly capable students by not giving them the advising and other help they need to graduate. Either way, we are wasting money and human capital inexcusably. Even at universities like mine, where the graduation rate is now 80 percent, if there are peer institutions doing better (and there are), then 80 percent should be considered unacceptably low.
Now, if we were pressured to increase that number quickly to 85 percent or 90 percent and threatened with severe sanctions for failing to do so, we could meet any established goal by lowering our graduation standards, or by fudging our numbers in plausibly defensible ways, or by doing any number of other things that would satisfy our self-interest but fail the public-interest test. Who’s to stop us? Well, I submit these are exactly the sorts of conflicts of interest the accrediting organizations should be expected to monitor and resolve in the public interest. The public interest is in a better-educated public, not in superficial compliance with some particular standard. The public relies on accreditors to keep their eye on the right ball. More generally, accrediting organizations are in an excellent — maybe even unique — position to identify best practices and transfer them from one colleges to another, improving our entire system of higher education.