Saturday, December 7, 2013

Fixing Higher Education part 3: Penalize accreditation violations


 

By Professor Doom

 

    So let’s continue talking about how to fix the horrid corruption in the higher education system in the United States. In previous essays I addressed the ideas of killing the antiquated regional monopoly, and reducing (if not eliminating) administration’s role in “evaluating” institutions of higher education.

 

" we finished the
self-study part of the program review.  It is 530 pages long, ..."

 

--One more accreditation booklet written. That was just for one department. That’s a lot of work for a complete joke, isn’t it? An accreditation review team has perhaps 8 members, what are the odds that these guys really do read the literally thousands of pages generated by the accreditation bureaucracy.

 

    Administrators simply can’t be trusted to do much in the way of verifying even basic educational principles. It must be faculty that do this. Yes, paying four or five experienced faculty to secretively go take a load of courses will be expensive, but the institution seeking accreditation will doubtless be willing to pay the tuition (since that’s not actual money, merely replacing the money given to the institution by the evaluators when they registered for the course), and even the government might be willing to pitch in, since the savings by eliminating all the bogus courses (and hence student loan money wasted on such) could easily cover the cost of faculty salaries. It might be hard to make faculty evaluate other courses, but this needs to be part of the job description: not just teach courses, but on some occasion evaluate (and learn from) what goes on in other courses. If each faculty member did this once a decade, this would allow for 5% of courses to have a legitimate evaluation (far above the 0% of today). Taking a full load of courses of material the faculty member already knows would nearly be a sabbatical for a semester, and a once-a-decade commitment wouldn’t cut that much into faculty’s usual desires of teaching and research.

     Once accredited, only a few courses every year would need to be surreptitiously taken, to keep the institution from simply putting up a façade of legitimacy for the accrediting process, then abandoning it once accredited. I’ve been behind the façade enough to know this would be necessary. Time and again I’ve seen “already accredited” schools completely blow off their principles, due to pressure from administration to increase retention and growth. It also needs to be done surreptitiously; once again, I’ve witnessed Potemkin coursework that was not representative of what really goes on at an institution.

     Only with approval of most of the faculty taking these courses could an institution become accredited, and could only keep accreditation provided the institution adheres to the principles of legitimacy it promised to keep. This brings up the next issue necessary to fixing accreditation: penalties for violations.

     After accreditation, an institution could be subject to significant fines if future course evaluations come up as unacceptable, and that brings me to the new idea for this essay. This idea is markedly missing from accreditation: clear penalties for violation of accreditation principles. I want to go over that again, because this concept is pretty amazing: accredited institutions NEVER pay a fine for violating accreditation principles.

 

Admin: “We were unable to make payroll this summer…”

Admin, 6 months later: “With enrollment dropping, we won’t be replacing the two faculty we lost. However, we’re opening up 2 new vice chancellor positions, and 4 dean positions.”

--it’s completely out of control because there are no checks on administrative growth.

 

     Let the concept of “no penalty for violating the regulations” settle for a bit. That school selling bogus degrees? No fine, gets to keep accreditation—granted, the school will need to fill out more accreditation forms, but that just means hiring more administrators, not exactly a problem, and suspiciously self-serving when you consider administrators run accreditation. Heck, a few of the administrators received PROMOTIONS for their assistance in the fraud.

     When accreditation was all self-regulated, penalties weren’t needed because the institutions legitimately wanted to improve as an end. Institutions back then didn’t deliberately violate accreditation, because there was no student loan money on the line, and if there was problem, the institution wanted to fix it because it was the right thing to do.

     Now, accreditation just means the loan money spigot opens up. With “growth is the only thing” administrators, improving education cannot be a goal. With for-profit institutions, by definition, it is unreasonable to believe they’re for-education. Since good intentions can no longer be assumed, there needs to be some drawback for institutions that are not acting in good faith to provide legitimate education.

     Just consider some penalties.

     What should happen to an institution that offers bogus courses? Seems fair to refund the student tuition, negate the bogus credit, and make the institution responsible for the loan money, letting scammed students off the hook. How is it I’m the first to think the penalty for “selling bogus product” is “refund the customer’s money”? The penalty would be the same for bogus degrees, as well. This sure strikes me as far more fair than now, where ripped off students get nothing but a lifetime of student loan debt for their bogus coursework.

     An institution that ruthlessly exploits “students” that don’t have the fiscal acumen to understand the nature of the loans they’re taking, a lack of acumen demonstrated by enrolling the students in coursework appropriate for an 8 year old? This type of violation goes on hundreds of thousands of times every semester, with no penalty. It sure seems fair it should be treated like the criminal behavior it is, and the institution would be obligated to pay off the student loan.

     What about selling questionable degrees, ones for which no jobs exist? Already some law schools are getting into trouble for this…but the students are still on the hook for the loan money, and the administrators involved laugh all the way to the bank. The institution should do more than just encourage the students to “click off a box to become eligible for loans”. The institution should have the student fill out a form indicating he understands that he’s going for a degree with no market value, or, again, be subject to having to return the money taken under false pretenses…otherwise, the institution would be guilty of fraud and have to make amends, just like how similar crimes are treated.

      This may sound extreme, but everything else that is regulated is subject to real inspection with real penalties for violation. The current system of self-inspection is a big part of how higher education has become so corrupted, and with the prospect of returning student loan money for giving bogus courses, administrators won’t be so eager to have professors offer content-free and otherwise questionable courses, or to reward professors that jeopardize accreditation by doing so. Administrators would have a real interest in being in legitimate institutions, instead of today, where their interests far too often lie in plundering institutions, or at least the students. While the straightforward penalties I suggest don’t actually hurt administrators directly, the pain they would cause institutions would probably make them rather reluctant to keep administrators that support fraud. This is superior to today, where as near as I can tell, a fraudster is actually desired by institutions.

     I’m no expert on such things, but there seriously needs to be penalties for violating accreditation. Today, institutions violate accreditation with impunity, because they know getting caught is unlikely, losing accreditation for even the most extreme violations is deeply unlikely, and other penalties are impossible.

      How did it even happen that a system of regulation was created that is utterly toothless?