The price of professional accreditation

Shopify Partners / Burst / Used under licenseThe California School of Professional Psychology was the country’s first free-standing professional school of psychology. It was one once known for radically transforming the training mental health professionals. And at the 2013 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference in Anaheim, its founding President said the school made a major mistake by choosing to pursue APA accreditation for its Clinical Psychology programs.

“The requirements of the APA,” said CSPP founding president (and later, APA president) Nicholas Cummings, “are such that you don’t have room for the purpose of it.” He was criticizing how detailed and specific accreditation requirements had become even at that time. (They are more specific today.) He argued that when schools like CSPP aim to meet the external standards of accreditors, those schools lose sight of opportunities to truly innovate. Accreditation chills efforts toward novelty.

Today, CSPP is part of Alliant International University. Alliant’s Clinical Psychology programs retain their APA accreditation. And both of CSPP’s external accreditations (APA and COAMFTE, for the family therapy program) provide students with a great many benefits, including increased portability of their eventual licenses. I’ve written previously about the benefits of COAMFTE accreditation for MFT students.

But I can’t help thinking that Cummings had a point. When any educational program sets its sights on meeting someone else’s definition of good enough education, that necessarily takes massive amounts of time and energy away from the pursuit of what might be better. I don’t think accreditation itself is the problem, as accreditation standards provide useful… well, standards. They provide common requirements that can be incorporated by reference into the licensing laws of any state, ensuring that an accredited program in Florida is roughly equivalent to an accredited program in Oregon, and thus that someone who gets their license in Florida has had similar training to someone who gets their license in Oregon (assuming the states require accredited degrees or equivalents). That’s important.

But it’s also true that accreditation standards and processes, through their restrictive nature and through their highly involved and time-consuming processes, make it harder for programs to do anything new or different in training their students. It’s not coincidence that Northcentral University (which is under new ownership) and Capella University, the two mostly-online programs now accredited by COAMFTE, did their innovation in technology-based teaching delivery first, and then went for accreditation. I have been and remain a champion of professional accreditation for graduate education. But for both COAMFTE and APA, it may be worth a careful rethinking of the balance between holding a line of minimal requirements and freeing programs to pursue something more ideal.

Originally published December 17, 2013. Republished with minor updates September 19, 2018.