Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fix Accreditation to Fix Higher Education


 

By Professor Doom

 

After months of detailing the thorough corruption of higher education, it’s time to give some easy ideas on how it can all be fixed. Last time I addressed the main reason why there are so many suckers willing to indebt themselves perpetually for a higher education: the myths. The suckers can be much reduced simply by telling the truth about higher education: it’s not a path to riches. Those who become successful after getting an education are generally hard workers, and it is the capacity for hard work, not the slip of paper, that is the real determinant of success.

Still, there is much that is bogus in higher education today, and this must be addressed. The next fix isn’t so easy as “tell the truth,”, but it is still achievable:

 

Make Accreditation Meaningful

 

    “[My school] is accredited, and I have my two year degree. Every place I want to go to has a four year degree program. They’ll accept my degree, no problem. After I transfer my two year degree, it will take me at least three more years to get the four year degree, and that’s if I take 16 hours a semester. How does it all transfer, but not add up to only two more years to finish?”

--Common complaint from my students that graduate, and move on to a university. I explain that administrators don’t understand why 4  - 2 should equal 2, especially since it’s more profitable if 4 – 2 = 3 or 4. It’s queer how it can be viewed as acting with integrity to tell students their 2-year degrees are fully transferrable when administration knows students will only get about half credit if they’re lucky.

 

     So much of the accreditation process has so little do with education that it’s puzzling that anyone could believe being accredited legitimizes the institution. Part of this misdirection, no doubt, is that the same college administrators that have failed higher education are generally the same people who influence what comprises accreditation today. Having the watchers also be the watched is a recipe for corruption, and this alone makes it no surprise that accreditation as it stands now is meaningless at best and a complete fraud at worst.

     The entire concept of accreditation began well over a century ago with educators at various institutions getting together to help each other understand how best to run an educational institution and to standardize, at least a little, what it meant to be such an institution. Accreditation was never intended to have the responsibility for the disposition of hundreds of billions of dollars of loan money; it was a huge mistake of the Federal government to indirectly assign such a massive responsibility to accrediting agencies. While administrators have their influence, many of the requirements for accrediting agencies come from the Department of Education. This is perfectly understandable, as only accredited institutions are eligible to get student loans and other money from the government: it is government money (well, after it has been “forcibly donated” by citizens), the government is entitled to set the terms under which they’ll hand it away. Thus, accrediting agencies should at the minimum do what they’re already doing as a matter of necessity.

     This doesn’t change the fact that accreditation never looks to see if there is much going on that really relates to education. Almost always, accrediting agencies allow the institution to self-report, making accreditation practically, if not completely, alone among all other forms of regulation. This made sense in the distant past when education wasn’t about big money and wasn’t controlled by administrators with no real interest in education, but now that accrediting is responsible for so much more than it was originally intended, it needs to be valid for the purpose of education. There are a few easy ways to make accreditation relevant to education, but I’ll start with the easiest.

     The most blatantly obvious is, of course, to have evaluators, people working as faculty/teachers at accredited institutions, actually take courses at the institution wishing accreditation. I’m quite comfortable taking any undergraduate course in the math curriculum, and I would be stunned if any graduate degree holder in another field would have difficulty in courses that he is qualified to teach (a faculty member who can’t do so probably has a bogus degree, and identifying these people would further help return legitimacy to higher education). The evaluators need not show up every day (students can generally miss weeks), need not submit original work (courses with writing can be time-consuming, and plagiarized papers should probably be used a few times anyway), could even try to cheat, need not even do enough work to pass the course (the better to see if grades are being given honestly), and not all courses need to be evaluated or attended for the entirety of the semester. The point is to at least have the slightest idea what goes on in actual courses at the institution.

 

Registrar, at a policy change meeting: “Due to a glitch, a number of students in various courses were enrolled in courses accidentally. They didn’t know they were in the course, so never showed up for class or did assignments, and didn’t know what was going on until they received their report card. We need to change the policy to allow students to drop late, for this reason.”

Me: “Of these students that did absolutely nothing, about how many failed?”

Registrar: “2/3rds failed. The rest got A’s, but complained because it cut into their loan disbursements.”

Me: “To be clear, 1/3 of the students that literally did absolutely nothing still got an A for their coursework?”

Registrar: “Yes.”

--No, administration didn’t decide to look into pretty clear evidence that around 1/3 of the coursework on campus was utterly and completely bogus. Of course.

 

Right now, this doesn’t happen, an instructor can literally give no reading assignments, no writing assignments, no tests, manufacture bogus attendance records, assign all A’s at the end of the semester…and receive kudos from administration for doing such good work. I really wish I weren’t joking, but there’s a reason why the average college grade is A- (the last chart in that link says it all). At the bare minimum, an institution with integrity would look at a class with all A’s, think “well, this material is so easy everyone masters it, so there’s no reason to charge thousands of dollars to teach it.”  That’s not how it works, but it needs to work that way again.

 

Administration e-mail: “For night instructors, please use your class time wisely, these courses are supposed to meet for 3 contact hours a week.”

--I often taught night classes, meeting once a week from 6 to 8:45. When my class takes a five minute break around 7:30, typically the parking lot has as many cars as I have students, plus my own vehicle…even when many classrooms have a class registered to it for those hours. Since it doesn’t matter if anyone’s learning anything, and giving assignments is counter-productive to job security, I rather see the point of just letting students go early. I had integrity, thought I should adhere to my contract and legitimately try to help my students, and was punished for it repeatedly.

 

     Having faculty evaluators is important, and puts the burden on the accrediting agency to do its job, as it should be. The regulators at the accrediting agency need to see with their own eyes what is actually going on. There is so much bogus crap on accredited campuses, courses that absolutely are a waste of time and money for students, courses with minimal reading, minimal writing, laughable testing, and dubious lecturing, passing very happy students but accomplishing no real improvement in skills or gains in knowledge, and this is not even addressing “elective” courses that might well be of some value if minimal content. All of these shenanigans are covered up by institutions being allowed to self-report how great they are at what they do, not just in math classes or gender studies classes, but in all subjects.

     Accreditation is broken on many levels, and having educators, not administrators, determine if education is even being attempted is merely the start of it. Of course, this needs to be done carefully, but I’ll address that in more detail next time.