Reauthorization of Higher Ed Act can bring with it change

Okay, parents, raise your hands if you’d like to see Congress change higher education.

Would you like to see college tuition and costs come down so more of your kids can attend the college or university of his or her choice?  Would you like to see changes in the way colleges are evaluated to foster improvements and innovations rather than blocking them?  Would you like to see technology drive improvements and innovations rather than having educational institutions consistently falling behind the technological curve?  Would you like more information about colleges and universities so you can more accurately assess quality before investing tens of thousands of dollars in your child’s education? 

Your big chance comes this year as Congress will reauthorize the Higher Education Act.  But if history is any guide, contact your senators and representatives now because educators and accreditors will resist meaningful change.      

No matter which side of the political aisle you’re on, you should favor significant changes in the way the educational accreditation system works.  Accreditors and lobbyists for accrediting bodies have previously successfully convinced members of Congress that their system of accreditation amounts to an important peer review system that is needed to ensure quality.  However, like many systems that are shielded from appropriate oversight by a conviction that they can oversee themselves, accreditation has impeded innovation, promoted archaic policies, and increased costs.

Very often the increases in costs have resulted from the accreditors’ desire to advance their own economic circumstances.  After all, if a college or university loses its accreditation seal of approval, it can lose access to the Title IV program of loans, grants, and work-study programs.  Administrators and professors from one institution are less than motivated to reach an adverse accreditation decision, knowing that the currently evaluated school might lose its federal meal ticket.  They avoid harsh criticisms of peer institutions because they know that administrators and professors from those institutions may soon volunteer to evaluate their own school. 

On the other hand, if everyone plays along – offering only constructive criticism and modest suggestions for fine-tuning programs – schools will survive, and administrators and professors will continue to benefit from federal largesse.    

Accreditors worry that reauthorization will result in wholesale rejection of their system of peer review.  Based on experience with the law school accreditation model, peer review in that context only rarely improves the quality of educational experiences. However, it depends on how one defines peer review.

The scientific model of peer review envisions contributions from a number of different scholars and academics in a particular discipline within the scientific community weighing in with their thoughts about a proposed theory.  At least in law school accreditation circles, the in-bred composition of the accreditation teams led to questions about their ability to be objective and fairly evaluate alternative models.  While divergent viewpoints might spur innovation and improve the process, accreditation teams have a vested interest in promoting the traditional models that would validate their own views about what’s good for legal education.

Additionally, accreditation in America has come to exemplify the Washington Beltway affliction known as “regulatory capture.”  The people who are in charge of evaluating, overseeing, and regulating institutions of higher learning are the same people who teach in the institutions they oversee.  It is in their self-interest to promote the same types of academic instruction, policies, and procedures with which they are most intimately familiar.

For instance, in the field of law school accreditation, the American Bar Association continues to enforce standards which require a certain amount of time of classroom instruction while denying the viability of other models.  Additionally, ABA standards require a certain set number of tenured professors that serves both to perpetuate the same models of instruction and to ensure economic security for professors and higher costs for students.  Finally, the ABA standards constrains online learning in an era when students will increasingly obtain degrees without ever setting foot in a bricks and mortar classroom.

Because of regulatory capture of accredited institutions by the accreditors, students, parents and even educational peers never receive timely and complete information about institutions that are approved to disburse federal funds.  Congress has repeatedly demanded that accreditors promote transparency to let consumers know more about the institutions to which they might send thousands in tuition dollars; however, in the insulated systems resulting from a captured system, accreditors are more likely to perform their functions in secret.  Thus, accreditors share only the most limited information about the institutions they accredit; typically, this amounts to letting consumers know if a particular institution is or is not accredited. 

Consequently, students and parents are not privy to information about which programs within an institution provide excellent and which provide merely mediocre educational experiences.  They are not privy to information about how long students typically take to earn degrees from particular institutions, and they are not privy to information about how well graduates perform in the workplace once they’ve earned their degrees. In short, accreditors are not accountable to consumers; as such, accreditation rarely performs the consumer protection function for which it is widely touted.   

Some of the most prominent (and well-endowed) educational institutions in the country continue to complain about the high costs imposed by having to comply with accreditation requirements.  Accrediting organizations are funded by the fees charged to colleges and universities, and high costs have the inevitable result of preventing the start-up of institutions which might provide alternative instructional models and delivery systems.  Thus, if innovative educators identify a possible new model, devise a program to deliver quality instruction, and fashion a high-tech delivery system, those educators will either not receive accreditation or determine that it’s too costly to even try to obtain accreditation.

Additionally, the economic stress and administrative burdens imposed on less well-endowed institutions in both preparing for and undergoing the accreditation process are inevitably passed on to students.  Obviously, in an economic climate in which costs are already out of control, Congress should act to eliminate or seriously reduce unnecessary costs imposed by dysfunctional accreditation systems.  

Congress must also act to ensure that if accreditation continues to exist in one form or another, that form must evaluate institutions based on their ability to provide students with the skills they need to practice in their chosen fields.  For many accreditors who remain wedded to 20th century models of evaluation, judging whether students obtain competency in their chosen fields prior to graduation has either been a non-factor or has been relegated to secondary significance. 

Part of this stems from the difficulty of obtaining reliable data about how well students are doing in the workforce, but a bigger part of it stems from the accreditors’ desire to rely on the less strenuous metrics of inputs-based standards.  Of course, measuring inputs is simple, but employers are justifiably more interested in outcomes-based measures of student success.  Employers want to know, “Can this person independently do the job I need him or her to do?” 

On the contrary, accreditors have spent years mandating that accredited institutions measure how many students attend classes; how many teachers are needed to assure certain prescribed student-faculty ratios; and how many hard-copy volumes should constitute a suitable library.  While these metrics provide accreditors with expedient cookie-cutter checklists for measuring institutional effectiveness, they do not answer the critical question: Is the institution doing everything it needs to do to prepare students to take the skills they've obtained and apply them to the workforce?

For over 60 years, Congress has relied on the accreditation system to oversee higher education and serve as a gatekeeper for the disbursement of federal funds. Some accreditors (particularly the regionals) have acknowledged weaknesses and have begun to institute changes to take account of evolving circumstances and formulate technological solutions; others have remained mired in the past.  If Congress is to take seriously its obligation to ensure the availability of affordable, quality education for all Americans, it must either jettison the entire system and authorize the Department of Education to develop an alternative oversight system, or it must instruct the DoED to give continued recognition only to those accreditors who truly ensure institutional quality and effectiveness to its students.     

Kurt Olson is an Associate Professor at the Massachusetts School of Law in Andover, MA.  He teaches Writing, Research, & Trial Advocacy, Legal Ethics, Internet and the Law, Law Office Technology, and Environmental Law.