END ACCREDITATION AS WE KNOW IT
That accreditation is a racket is well-known among higher ed policy wonks and, likely, among professors and university heads. While it is supposed to be a standard of quality, parents and students generally have little understanding of the accreditation process or what it really indicates – a testament to the lack of value it provides to families trying to assess colleges.
Not surprisingly, then, parents put much more stock in reviews such as U.S. News and World Report or Princeton Review than they do the federally backed accreditation regime.
If accreditation was just confusing though harmless that would be one thing. But it is a barrier to the kind of competition needed to shake up the costly and moribund higher education system. And it blocks many student customers from picking better and less costly educations because students do not have access to federal student aid if they attend an unaccredited university. At the same time, federal funding has become an increasingly large portion of university budgets, which has meant that virtually every college in the country is accredited and so has to operate by rules that protect the established institutions.
The existing accreditation system is based on inputs, not outputs: how many books are in the college library, whether a diversity director is on staff, etc. It is not based on – and does not remain contingent upon – school performance or job placement rates. That of course has been documented by private reviews such as U.S. News.
But we are on the brink of a higher education revolution thanks in large part to online learning, and accreditation is a barrier to needed change. Unless accreditation is delinked from federal financing, that revolution could be postponed longer than it need be; all the while students will continue to incur untenable levels of debt to pursue bachelor degrees of questionable value and rigor.
Higher education should be replaced with a system of credentialing – measuring the skills and knowledge students possess – in order to provide a transcript to employers that holds actual value. Students should be able to customize their higher education experiences instead of going to one brick and mortar school to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
Students could piece together, for instance, courses from Udacity, the Harvard Extension School, Coursera, and from models like the Flexible Degree Program now offered through the University of Wisconsin system. They should then be able to have those courses, along with any internships or prior skills, be independently assessed by private accrediting companies, in the same vein that Good Housekeeping or J.D. Power and Associates rate products.
This customized transcript which has been audited by private sector accrediting companies could then be shown to prospective employers. It’s a model that would save money for students, and provide employers with a pool of candidates that bring with them actual skills, tailored to the job description.
It would allow new upstarts to enter the higher ed landscape, free from the barrier of federally backed accreditation. They would then be judged by normal market forces, and students – including so many low-income students who have been ill-served by the traditional higher ed system – would have improved access at lower costs.
It should astound people that college is more expensive now than ever, at a time when basic knowledge is cheaper than at any other point in history. End the existing accreditation regime and you create a dynamic college experience that meets the needs of students, employers, and tax payers.
Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation, www.Heritage.org.