Thursday, December 4, 2014

Report Lists Flaws of Accreditation…Sort Of.

By Professor Doom

     So I’m looking over a report detailing why accreditation is a joke. It has many things right, but I feel the need to clarify a few things, especially when the report tries to say that accreditation is a barrier to making improvements in higher education.

“…the requirement that prospective colleges allow for on-site evaluations (meaning that they effectively have to be already in operation with professors teaching courses and students taking classes) creates a “built-in Catch-22 for innovators and entrepreneurs—you can’t be accredited (get access to public money) until you have proved yourself in advance. You can’t prove yourself in advance—prospectively—unless you are accredited.”[29]

     This is certainly true, but the report neglects to mention how this came to be. In the mid/late 19th century, the various higher educational institutions in North America got together to pick each other’s brains as far as best ideas for running such institutions. The schools were already legitimate, they were interested in becoming better.

     So, from the ground up, a school that wanted to become accredited needed to be a SCHOOL first, and then get accreditation. Accreditation was voluntary, after all, and so this wasn’t a barrier to schools forming. Just as you must write a book before you can hope to get rave reviews from critics, expecting to become accredited before the school opens its doors isn’t a barrier…it’s just common sense.

“One estimate of the market value of accreditation is $10 million. No wonder that some for-profit colleges decided to purchase nonprofits in order to inherit their accreditation and avoid the costly headache of seeking first-time regional accreditation.[30]

--     The barrier to entry, and the bogus nature of accreditation once received (schools get to decide for themselves if they’re legitimate, once accredited), make this an excellent strategy for a for-profit school. Buy a non-profit that was trying to be legitimate, then sell out the prestige and plunder students of their loan money is a tried and true tactic for profits. Again, it’s the loan scam that’s the problem here, not that the report connects the dots.

     On the other hand, tying Federal student loan money to accreditation is foolishness, because now only accredited schools can get that ridiculous flow of money. So, yeah, because of the student loan scam, accreditation is a serious barrier to new schools that cannot hope to compete. It’s as reasonable as expecting restaurants to only be able to sell to the public after 5 years of rave reviews from critics (critics that, incidentally, don’t even pay for their own meals). 

     Take away the student loan scam, and the horrible, broken, fraud that is accreditation becomes irrelevant in higher education. It’ll dry up and blow away, or so it should unless it cleans up its act. 

      The report continues, but doesn’t think things through:

Hindering Innovation. In addition to insulating colleges from normal market forces, the existing accreditation system reduces the incentive for colleges to revise their existing business models and make the reforms needed to spark innovation. For instance, one regional accreditation agency—the Western Association of Schools and Colleges—requires any university that wants to make a substantive change (defined broadly as anything that may affect the school’s quality or objectives) to submit a detailed report to the agency at least four months before the implementation date of the proposed change.

     While in theory, this is certainly true, but didn’t the report just get through saying that for-profits buy up already accredited schools? That’s a substantive change and a total revision of the business model, too. If accreditation were legitimate, that sort of thing couldn’t happen. The report probably should have spent more time investigating why accreditation is such a fraud.

      The report then starts to scrape the bottom of the barrel for criticisms of accreditation, even though “it’s a total fraud” really strikes me as the way to go:

Creating a Limited Vision of What Higher Education Can Be. Perhaps most frustrating of all, however, is the manner in which the existing accreditation regime limits the vision of higher education and creates an inflexible college experience for students.

     I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man telling kids to get off my lawn, but I do humbly point out education, for the last few thousand years, has primarily involved study, and reading and writing about what was studied. Maybe change should be slow here.

     The report, earlier, pointed out how accreditation already allows for education to no longer include studying, reading, and writing, so that seems pretty flexible to me. In fact, I find this flexibility a problem, since now it’s quite common to have people with advanced degrees, deep in student debt, with no measureable skills or knowledge gained after 6 or more years of higher education. This happens because these students, despite being at accredited schools, don’t have to study, to read, or to write. How is this NOT a problem?

     Don’t get me wrong, accreditation is a fraud and I love when others agree that it is, but it really seems like there’s an agenda to this report.

     The report goes on to discuss in detail MOOCs, online coursework. I’ve written before that there’s little reason to suspect any online coursework is legitimate, and the “real world” has already figured out the minimal value of online degrees. Again, I’m not sure how a report criticizing how accreditation is stifling innovation can then spend time listing all the various accredited online options around…sure looks like accreditation allows for innovation to me. Accreditation DOES allow innovation.
     What accreditation doesn’t do, and this is the important part, is assure any sort of legitimacy to any sort of educational institution…I really think any report on accreditation should have focused on this issue.

     Ignoring the incoherency of the thesis in the report, the report goes back to saying relevant things:

Different Business Models: Credentialing Skills, not Seat Time. As MOOCs begin to disrupt the antiquated and ineffective model of higher education, the market is beginning to address another critical piece of the higher education puzzle: institutions that move beyond the traditional concept of the bachelor’s degree.

     And here, I have to agree completely, with some clarification. There are many myths about higher education that have tricked a generation of young people into thinking they must pursue higher education to succeed in life (I encourage the reader to click that link and search through my blog for discussion of those myths). One of the most important myths concerns higher education being necessary for a good job.

     Higher education is only coincidentally about job skills, and that blurring has led to the doom of many a poor fool (led by giggling administration!) into endless student debt. That student loan money should instead, for many people, go to actual job skills, to teaching those skills, to credentialing those skills.

     But, that’s not higher education. Don’t get me wrong, fixing a car, repairing air conditioners, and installing electrical wiring are every bit as honorable, and important, to humanity as philosophy, mathematics, physics, and all the other “ancient” topics of higher education.

     But these things are not all the same. A garage is a great place to learn about fixing cars, but not really the best place to discuss mathematics. A workshop is a wonderful place for learning carpentry, but not so much for philosophy. Similarly, I wouldn’t dream of taking a student to a classroom to teach him how to pilot a plane (at least, not for the important skills), or how to play piano. It’s pretty stunning, actually, that people got confused about where to go to learn real job skills, because the local university never was the best place to be for that.

     Accreditation, however, didn’t cause this confusion…it was clueless/corrupt administration, willing to say anything (including that ridiculous line about “college graduate makes a million more dollars”) to grab more student loan money that caused this confusion. Accreditation, being bogus, simply didn’t do anything to stop it.

      The report eventually makes three recommendations to improve higher education. Let’s take a look:

1.     End government sanctioning of accrediting agencies and allow any institution to accredit courses. At the same time, accreditation should be voluntary, and accrediting entities’ reputations should rest with market forces, not government institutions. The abundance of online information, coupled with the self-interest of students to be competitive in the job market, “reduces the problem of fraudulently low-quality education to one of de minimis proportions.”[57]

--Really, allow institutions to simply accredit themselves? Oops. See, the reason why accreditation is a fraud (as the report points out!) is the conflict of interest we have now. The people running the institutions are the same as those running accreditation…no kidding there’s a conflict of interest. Institutions already basically self-accredit, which is why most of higher education is a fraud today.

--“accreditation should be voluntary” says this recommendation, but accreditation is ALREADY voluntary. You just can’t compete with the accredited schools, since they get all the loan money. Hmm, the loan money seems to be the problem…

    So this is a terrible recommendation, almost as though the report wasn’t paying attention to what it said earlier.

2.     Avoid federal “scorecards.” A seductive idea, even among some critics of today’s accreditation system, is to have the federal government replace or supplement federally driven accreditation with a scorecard that seeks to measure the output of colleges by criteria such as graduation rates, employability of graduates, and value for money. Such federal intervention would be a mistake: Existing institutions that are comfortable within the cocoon of protectionist accreditation would lobby hard, and no doubt effectively, for output measures that define success in their own terms. Moreover, a competing range of such private outcomes-based scorecards already exists, sponsored by such bodies as U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, ACTA, and Kiplinger’s.

       --Sure, Federal scorecards are problematic. Since the report didn’t discuss scorecards in much detail, I won’t point out the issues with them here. The thing is, with all the Federal money flowing into schools, I rather expect the Federal government will want to have some means of knowing that the money is well spent. That, alas, the Federal government made the horrible mistake of trusting accreditation to do that is pretty horrible, but back to the point: the report wants to get rid of scorecards…so now the money will just be thrown away randomly? 

       The only way this recommendation could make any sense is if it also recommended getting rid of the Federal student loan scam. Hey look, one more recommendation:

3.     Decouple accreditation and federal funding. ACTA notes that once accreditation agencies became the gatekeepers for federal funding, “accreditors essentially gained regulatory control over colleges.”[58] Federal policymakers should therefore decouple accreditation and federal funding through amendments to the Higher Education Act, eliminating the necessity that colleges get accredited by the government-sanctioned system. This reform would allow independent accrediting institutions to enter the market, thereby providing students with numerous options for creating their “degree” and shaping their college experience.

--Sure, decouple accreditation from funding, I already figured that out from the rest of the report. There’s no recommendation here for what should replace it. My vote would be to change the rules of accreditation to make it legitimate (primarily by putting educators that actually teach in charge of education and teaching), but failing that, here’s a recommendation from me that would go a long way to cleaning up the corruption and fraud in higher education, and eliminate the conflicts of interest in accreditation, in one blow:

     Recommendation #1: Get rid of the Federal student loan scam.

      Seriously, it’s that simple. Do this, and accreditation becomes no more relevant to the world than a Saturday morning cartoon, which, frankly, is all it deserves at this point.