Aloha - and what you may well ask does the American post-secondary system of accreditation have to do with the extinct dodo bird?  I'm sad to say that you just guessed the answer: they're both extinct. Okay, the dodo bird I get, but what about accreditation?  It's hardly extinct - it's the very foundation of North American higher education, isn't it?

The answer is, it was.  Back in the early 50's and 60's accreditation had a particularly important meaning:  courses taken at one American college were equivalent to those taken at another accredited institution. This did two things.  First, it raised the quality bar by requiring college and university courses taken at accredited institutions to be similar in quality.  Second, it changed the former feudal system whereby a student was academically bound to the institution where he or she began studies. Now students could transfer between accredited institutions, picking and choosing to graduate from those felt to be the best. Transfer, you see, is much easier than freshman admission. 

Accredition used to mean this, but from my perch here in Hawaii, I've watched accredition change from a firm academic agreement to a business advert.  And why not?  Anyone these days who knows how to self-critique and can successfully navigate the monetary and bureaucratic byroads can gain accreditation.  What's more, when they do, they don't need to honor course quality or credit equity anymore.  It's not wholly a business like indulgences were, but it seems to be coming awfully close in my opinion. For example, I had two students seek to transfer the same regionally-accredited coursework to the same university.  One counselor granted full credit; the other rejected it outright. Odd, I thought and contacted the head of admissions only to be told that first each counselor had the right to accept or reject transfer credit as he or she saw fit, and second the university was under no obligation to accept any courses or credits from institutions within the same region.  So what's left of the "regional" or "accreditation" in regional accredition then?  It was, I was told, a complex issue and one which I, a mere academician really wouldn't understand.

What's really going on, I believe, is another example of the shift from academic service to the business of education. If a student takes classes elsewhere and then tranfers in to another institution last in his or her course of studies, then the student doesn't really reflect the standards of the students who've been studying their whole time there. Hmmm. Also the accepting institution suffers monetarily. Really, I thought. So education isn't a service anymore.  It's a business involved in making profit through the selling of diplomas?  Ah, yes, I was told, but not quite like that. You see, only diploma mills sell diplomas, and accredited institutions by virtue of being accredited are not diploma mills. This is logic Socrates would find interesting, I'm sure. 

I'm not arguing there aren't diploma mills.  What I'm arguing is that accredited institutions of higher learning sure sound a lot like a diploma mill when they explain accreditation these days. 

Why can't students transfer freely from institution to institution if, in fact, the courses are equivalent.  And what makes two courses equivalent anyway?  Is about the course numbers or names, course descriptions, syllabi or assessment devices administered?  Is it about the quantity of information acquired and retained?  Is it about critical thinking, reading, writing, speaking and listening (what some call college level "literacy")?  Or is it about how well one uses and applies what one has learned (what I call knowledge) and knowing when to appropriately apply it (what I call wisdom) - what the U. S. National Academy of Sciences decried that U. S. post-secondary graduates are increasingly devoid of in HOW PEOPLE LEARN (contextual cross-applicability some like to call it now)?  If accredition bodies can't even answer this basic question, and they can't, then it's no wonder that accreditation is loosing it's meaning in light of the ever growing business of education. 

And what about all those distance learning institutions that have such an unfair advantage over our traditional brick and mortar institutions?  Did I miss something here? Are we talking academic service or, once again, the business of education.  The latter, I can't but believe.  Yes, distance learning institutions do have an advantage over traditional brick and mortar institutions, but does that justify discrimination and support of a less effective system of a more effective one?  Maybe the traditional institutions are simply staving off the inevitable:  that in the future, students will be able to study from any professor anywhere in the world, picking and choosing the best education for themselves, their final degree being issued by "credit banks" of varying flavor and cost.  Interesting concept:  continuing the digression from feudal serfdom to a more modern, enlightened world. But the key, in my opinion, is for us to begin recognizing the business of education for what it is:  just another "anything-is-fair-in-love-war-and-business" capital profit venture. Accreditation, like the Emporer's new clothes, looks different in the stark light of today's business reality.  Only when we return to the service of education will it began to once again take on it's original meaning and worth. 

Dr. Daniel S. Janik PhD (Education)
Author of
     - Unlock the Genius Within
     - How to Choose the BEST English Language School in the USA
     - A Neurobiological Theory and Method of Language Acquisition
Available on and at outstanding academic libraries and bookstores everywhere.