Accreditation refers to the recognition given to institutions which have fully met specific standards of educational quality by an agency or an association. In the US, the relevant agencies undertake a review of education quality at all levels including elementary, secondary, colleges and universities. The agencies set basic standards reflecting the qualities of sound educational programs (Hasley et al, 1986 pp 66).
They then develop procedures aimed at determining whether the institutions and programs meet the set standards. Many other countries lack accreditation systems like those used in the US and instead rely mainly on government agencies to check their education quality and standards. In Canada, provincial government authorities work closely with private educational associations in periodically assessing the quality of universities, colleges and schools.
Accreditation offers standards of excellence that help in encouraging educational institutions in improving their programs. It also provides accountability for institutions’ educational policy, and creates criteria for certifying professions like medicine and law. Furthermore, it helps prospective students to identify quality institutions, while facilitating student transfer from an institution to another. Accreditation is also among the factors used in determining the institutions and programs eligible for receiving federal and private funds.
The accreditation procedure for any agency entails five fundamental stages, each of which has many other subtasks under it. First, the agency must establish the criteria or standards of academic excellence in consultation with the educational institution being accredited.
The second stage involves development of procedures enabling institutions to evaluate themselves deeply, to help in determining if they meet the set accreditation standards or not. In case they do not meet the established standards, the institutions must go back to the drawing board and make the necessary adjustments and improvements to satisfy the required demands. Depending on the level of compliance, this may require the institution to invest some more time and resources and resources into it.
Thirdly, the agency performs an evaluation aimed at determining first-hand if the institution really meets the set standards. This involves examining the institution’s facilities as well as its resources, both physical and human. This is done until the agency is fully convinced that the institution meets its minimum requirements. The evaluation is done by the agencies’ experts, who are usually armed with specific requirements for accreditation.
Fourthly, the agency then grants the accreditation to the institution after it is convinced that the necessary requirements have been met. It then publishes a list of institutions that have met similar requirements and have been awarded accreditation by the agency, including the time of the accreditation.
Finally, the agency periodically reviews these institutions to find out if they still maintain educational quality standards. This is done to ensure the institutions do not compromise on the quality of educational standards. All accreditation agencies utilize these steps even though inspection procedures and specific criteria differ depending on the agency.
Current issues in the accreditation process
Problems of the Law School Accreditation Process
For the past ten or so years, the American Bar Association’s accrediting arm has faced a lot of criticism with regard to its standards. The association has been accused of having poorly monitored standards that are not related to law school quality (Marty et al, 1991).
Critics are of the view that ABA’s accreditation standards lack correlation with professional competence and institutional quality. The accreditation process puts emphasis on high cost inputs; like requirements for physical facilities, library collections and the number of professors available. Moreover, it considers test scores at law school admission, which has been criticized as not being related to professional skills and academic achievement. The association has also been accused of restricting low income students and minorities by putting too much emphasis on standardized tests as well as raising tuition fees (Luebchow, 2007).
The critics have accused the ABA of being inconsistent and using secret rules, which are not made public or disclosed to schools, to make accreditation decisions. The Department of Education has also complained about ABA’s failure in abiding by the department’s specific requirements (Hagan, 2004 pp201). The Congress has also raised concerns about the association’s accreditation.
Both the federal officials and law schools have often disapproved ABA’s accreditation process from the early 1990s. The Massachusetts School of Law, which has itself not been accredited, has for long strongly criticized the association. In 1993 the school sued ABA citing violation of antitrust law because it functioned as a cartel and set unfair standards that only raised costs, yet were not connected to law school quality. The Justice Department filed a similar suit in 1994, leading to a ten year consent decree, which is now defunct (Hagan, 2004).
The Education Department has also crossed heads with the association over its failure to comply with the department’s criteria for recognition since the 1990s. These deficiencies led to the limiting of the association’s recognition to just three years in 1997. Later in 1998, the Education Department’s staff recommended the limiting, suspending or terminating the association’s recognition as nationally recognized accreditation agency (Luebchow, 2007).