America’s system of higher education is on the verge of dramatic change. After years of debate, enterprising academics may have resolved higher education’s most frustrating dilemma: the fact that although a college degree or an equivalent set of skills is essential for a good job and the chance of upward economic mobility, a traditional college education has become unaffordable for many Americans—unless they are willing to incur enormous debt. In fact, over half of all graduates with bachelor’s degrees incur an average of $23,000 in debt, and cumulative student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt.
Entrepreneurial educators are attempting to resolve this dilemma by using new business models and new ways of learning, such as online courses, to slash the cost of a collegelevel education. These innovations offer the prospect of a fundamental restructuring of higher education with a sharp reduction in costs—a revolution that would be a boon to students seeking to acquire the skills they need in today’s economy.
Despite the promise presented by these innovations, a considerable obstacle remains: accreditation. A feature of the traditional education system, accreditation is a “seal of approval” granted to institutions of higher education and is intended to assure students that colleges and universities meet certain standards of quality. And yet, as a system of quality measurement, accreditation is riddled with problems. For example, it favors existing expensive business models for higher education, thereby making it difficult for new models to emerge. Additionally, accreditation rates entire institutions—rather than specific courses—and, as a result, is a poor indicator of the skills acquired by students.
Accreditation also narrows the number of educational opportunities available to students: In order to receive federal student aid, students must attend an accredited school. While accreditation is technically voluntary, students at an unaccredited college are ineligible for federal student loans and grants. Consequently, as federal student aid and subsidies have become an increasingly larger share of university budgets over the past four decades, most institutions have little choice but to seek accreditation.
Without question, America’s system of higher education needs dramatic and lasting reform. Accreditation, however, continues to impede such a transformation. If higher education is to keep pace with the demands of future economies, the metrics used to value an education must place a greater emphasis on rating and credentialing specific courses and acquired skills, not institutions. This reform can and should be driven by the private sector so that the skills students receive are the same tools valued by employers. Policymakers, lawmakers, and business leaders need to resist the efforts of existing institutions of higher education to thwart this necessary change.
Read the entire Heritage Foundation report here.