Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kill the regional monopoly of accreditation



By Professor Doom

 

    Last time around, I proposed a simple, obvious fix to accreditation: have faculty actually see what’s going on in other institutions. There is a little problem here, beyond the fact that administrators totally don’t want documentation of much of the bogus crap being peddled at their institutions.

     To explain the problem, I need to provide a little background on how accreditation works. Accreditation began in the late 19th century, as a way to standardize to some extent what was going on in the institutions of higher learning. Accrediting bodies were formed by the schools in a region. This was understandable, since back then it simply wasn’t feasible for, say, a school in Texas to be accredited by a body in New England. Because of the regional nature of accrediting, all schools in a region MUST get accredited by the same accreditor. If there were a South Atlanta University and a North Atlanta University, they would have exactly one “choice” of accreditor, and it would be the same for both. It wouldn’t matter if the accreditor were very expensive and bogus (expenses for accreditation can easily run hundreds of thousands year, once administrative time is accounted for), both fictional Atlanta Universities would have no choice in the matter.

     This monopoly power might sound sinister, but accreditation back then was strictly voluntary, and if it were still voluntary today, I certainly wouldn’t complain quite as vociferously about how corrupt and useless it is.

    Now, accreditation today is still voluntary in theory. In practice, however, it isn’t. The Federal government only provides that geyser of student loan money to accredited institutions. This boon is so massive that it’s impossible for a non-accredited (legitimate) institution to compete. It’d be like a gas station subsidized to the point that they could hand every customer $50 with every fill-up, and the gas is free, too…even if the lines for a fill-up were 2 hours long, no other station would bother opening anywhere near such a place.

 

Me: “I see policy gives consideration for work in industry. Why was my paper, “A confidence cone technique for improved error estimation in geological surveys” written under contract for a mining corporation, ruled as not valid?

Admin: “We couldn’t determine if there was any mathematics in it.”

Me: “You have faculty here, that teach mathematics. Why couldn’t they help?”

Admin: “They’re not qualified to determine that sort of thing.”

Me: “But you hired to teach them to teach college mathematics anyway?”

--I didn’t actually speak that last line, but incompetent administration hiring incompetent faculty really should be discouraged. As it is, admin prefer incompetent faculty, because they have a tendency to be spineless sycophants.

     With accreditation de-facto mandatory, I feel justified in asking that it be made honest. Having academics evaluate academic work (as opposed to clueless administrators) is a start, but there’s a potential for corruption here that can still occur even with faculty, even competent faculty.

 

 Me: “What’s going on the nurse prep program is fraud, and we probably should do something about it.”

Administration: “You’re not being collegial, and if you continue to speak of this, you will be sanctioned.”

--it’s curious that my attempts to bring legitimacy to an institution were stonewalled, and met with bizarre accusations of “non-collegiality.” I imagine the same thing happened at Penn State. Every complaint of “children being sodomized in the showers” was rejected out of hand, because there’s simply no way to say “children being sodomized in the showers” in a collegial way, and so such complaints went on for years. Much like with what I had to say, truth was irrelevant.

 

     There’s a mostly-unwritten rule of collegiality that institutions are supposed to use when dealing with each other. They’re supposed to be collegial, which, basically means even if another institution is operating in a completely fraudulent manner, other institutions are supposed to not mention it. All well and good, I suppose, and I understand that institutions that are close to each other should try to get along. However, the antiquated regional accreditation system combines with collegiality to facilitate corruption.

     Right now, administrators in a region evaluate institutions in the same region, always. In my example above, administrators at South Atlanta University would have influence on the evaluation of what’s going on at North Atlanta University, and vice versa. “Collegiality” means these administrators would have a vested interest in letting the institutions be fairly bogus. Racing to the bottom of a pit is so much easier than climbing to the top of a mountain, after all.

     My Atlanta Universities are fictional, but the reality is this is what has happened today. How else can one explain outright diploma mills keeping accreditation, and all the other examples I’ve given of incredibly fraudulent institutions still keeping accreditation year in and year out?

     Now, faculty would at least be qualified to judge academics, which is a big jump over what we have today, but the regional system means the potential for corruption would still be there, a potential for “quid pro quo” fraud that simply doesn’t need to exist. Pseudo-faculty at pseudo-colleges could just mutually accredit each other, little different than today.

So: kill the regional accrediting monopoly system.

     An institution should be allowed to pick what accrediting body to use. The regional system just makes no sense in the modern world, where travel and communication is so much quicker and easier than in the 19th century. Now, collegiality wouldn’t be nearly as critical as doing honest work, and faculty wouldn’t have to fear for their jobs and lose the ability to work someplace nearby (I’ll have to address the culture of fear as faculty in higher education later) if they say something admin don’t like. If distance is such that sending evaluating faculty  to the institution is a problem, the accreditor could sub-contract sometimes through a closer accreditor…accreditors don’t have to watch every second, but even looking once every few years is better than the perpetually shut eyes of accreditation today. I repeat that doing some work for accreditation would have to become part of faculty’s job, so that accreditors would have access to faculty—it’s a small price to pay to regain respectful treatment, and the money would be a fraction of the stupid-large sums administrators in accreditation get.

     As an added bonus, competition, instead of the regional monopoly of today, would probably lead to lower costs of accreditation. It’s bloody expensive and time consuming right now, and I bet an accreditor that promised “a fair evaluation for only $500,000, and you’ll only have to fill out 500 pages of forms” would pretty much shut down all competition, because that is a vastly superior offer to what the monopoly accreditors of today have. Honest, there’s that much room for improvement.

     Now, certainly, there will be some bogus accreditors that charge little and do nothing, and those will be attractive to some schools; other schools may well include having a “real” accreditor as part of their prestige, and we won’t have the situation today, where a completely fraudulent accreditor (like the one approving the diploma mill) is the ONLY choice a legitimate institution has for its own accreditor. This is superior to today, where right now accreditors do nothing and charge a vast fortune, and that’s not even addressing all the bogus accreditors that exist already.

    So yeah, one more fix to accreditation: kill the antiquated regional monopoly system. I don’t even understand why lawyers haven’t broken up this de facto monopoly already.