Chapter 2: The Accreditation Myth
“[That professor’s] courses were a waste of time, every one of them. No reading, no writing, we passed out candy for credit, and talk about racial shit in class when she didn’t cancel class, which was at least once a week. I took five of her classes, they were great for my GPA.”
– a good student, speaking of a very favored professor at an accredited institution.
A great scam needs suckers, particularly vulnerable suckers with money. The culture provided the suckers, and the Federal government provides the money, although only for suckers going to an accredited school. Vulnerability is supplied by the myth of accreditation, the belief that accredited schools protect people from buying a bogus education.
College education is big business, with lots of money changing hands from the taxpayer to the government to the students to the workers in the industry. Of course, where there’s money, there are criminals and fraudsters there to take a piece, and education is no exception. “Diploma mills” and similar operations have always been around, and the primary way for a student to determine if his school is legitimate is accreditation.
Of course, with this being the bar, scammers will naturally (and trivially) self-accredit their schools by setting up their own accrediting organization, but outside of these, regional accrediting bodies, in their own way “accredited” by the Federal government, are well known. When a student, or prospective employee, shows up with transfer courses or credentials from an unknown school, the very first thing a suspicious employer or registrar will do is check the accreditation of the school. If the organization granting accreditation is legitimate, then it’s immediately assumed the credentials are legitimate, that that person has a real education from a real school.
Accreditation is mostly hokum. At best, accreditation shows that the institution could--theoretically and at some point in the past--offer a legitimate education, but the vast bulk of accrediting regulations have little to do with actual education. What little could be construed as verifying the school educates the students is easily worked around as institutions self-report their efforts at education, and, once the school is accredited, the school generally has no more interest in caring about education beyond the effort it takes to convince the accrediting body that the school cares about education.
The preceding paragraph may sound shocking, but it’s the simple truth. My current school is accredited by SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, so most of what I have to say here applies specifically to SACS. While only SACS is addressed in detail here, there are many accrediting agencies, each responsible for a defined region or area of specialization. They all are legitimized by the Department of Education, and so they all generally conform to the same set of rules coming from that department, although each accrediting agency does have some differences in how they address accreditation. One of the goals of accreditation is to facilitate students that migrate from one institution to an institution in a different region, and this further serves to homogenize what accreditation means. In short, accreditation agencies, like public schools, fast food restaurants, and big box retail stores, all generally follow more or less the same practices even if there are some differences, so the SACS guidelines for accreditation are largely analogous to accreditation guidelines given by other agencies.
My own eyes, and years of experience, had long since told me that accreditation meant little as far assuring an established institution was really providing an education to the students. I had thought these established institutions were defrauding the accrediting agency, but something happened to change this opinion: I began working at an unaccredited public institution. I started in my current position before the college was accredited, and worked on many of the projects necessary for my college to achieve accreditation through SACS. My going through the accrediting process from the ground up showed me that those older institutions were not defrauding the accreditation agency, or at least not very much. Accreditation, the whole process of it, has little to do with education.
For a school to gain accreditation from SACS, it must comply with SACS’ Principles of Accreditation: Foundations of Quality Enhancement1, an extensive document. Going through the accreditation process is extraordinarily time consuming, taking years and the hard work of many administrators (who often hire helpers) to document and answer every issue raised. To demonstrate the assertion that accreditation has very little to do with authentic education, most every point in this long document is addressed in this one chapter. For the uninitiated into the doldrums of bureaucracy, you can take it on faith that most of accreditation has nothing to do with education, and just move on to the next chapter, Remediation. If your faith is lacking, read 2.5, 2.7.3, 2.12, 3.3.1, 3.5.1, and 4.1 in detail below, as these sections represent areas where, possibly, some education takes place at the institution and is verified, laughably, by SACS.
The document begins with an extensive preamble of terms and descriptions before finally discussing precisely all the conditions that must be satisfied before an institution can be accredited, and how such conditions will be assessed. To be accredited, a college must satisfy the following (bold face represents excerpts from the document, with comments following):
1. Principle of Integrity
“I will not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who get caught.”
---Slightly altered military oath. One year I taught a class full of ROTC students, and one of them cheated on an exam; I couldn’t prove it, so I let it go. I received a series of calls after that from other students, wanting to make sure that one student cheating wouldn’t affect the other student’s grades. I was initially non-committal, but finally decided that it would (since I curved grades in that course). Only after telling students that a cheater could indirectly affect other student grades did I receive a call from the commanding officer of the ROTC students, asking that I drop the cheating student.
Integrity, like education, is difficult to define precisely, it’s usually easier to identify what is not integrity or not education. While qualitative, integrity is necessary to education; learning will always boil down to an opinion of what is knowledge or skill. Thus, the educators must act with integrity, basing their decisions and opinions in an intellectually honest way. The value of a diploma is nil if the institution granting it has no integrity.
Because integrity must be part of education, SACS only accredits institutions that act with integrity, whatever that might mean (and accreditation rules by other agencies have similar language). This section of the SACS document begins with a two page discussion of integrity, verbosely saying “don’t hide stuff and also, you should act like you have integrity.” Certainly a decent if somewhat circular way to address integrity, but the section makes it clear SACS will simply trust the institution not to hide stuff and will assume that the institution will act with integrity. In a vague way I suppose, if this were followed, this would set some sort of example to the students for their education, but it’s rather odd that one assumes an accredited school acts with integrity…and the accrediting body likewise just assumes the school acts with integrity.
“Trust, but always cut the cards” is good advice for a reason; the accrediting agency never actually cuts the cards, as shown below and in other places in this book, and this in part explains why it’s easy to find students with college degrees from accredited institutions but nothing that qualifies as an education.
It probably should go without saying that there’s not a lot of integrity at the schools I’ve taught at, but I’ll give a few examples of the institutional chicanery I’ve witnessed with my own eyes (student cheating will come later):
--A permanent position was available in my math department. A committee was formed, candidates chosen, documents reviewed, and a candidate was voted upon to receive the position. The Dean overruled the committee (almost causing a fistfight to break out by committee members) and someone not qualified, or even on the list of candidates, but a “personal friend” of the Dean, was given the position instead.
--A Dean had made a series of grotesque errors in implementing a policy regarding a promotion candidate. As per policy, the Dean served on the promotion committee, which rejected the promotion based on all her errors. When the candidate appealed since the errors were not his, the Dean, in explicit violation of the policy, somehow got appointed to the Appeal committee, and threatened and otherwise influenced the committee to likewise reject the promotion due to the errors, rather than acknowledge and correct the errors (to emphasize: the Dean served as judge regarding the validity of the promotion documents, and as jury on both the Promotion and Appeal committees, in direct violation of written policy, integrity, and common sense concepts regarding “conflict of interest”).
--A faculty member was found to be unqualified for his position, not having so much as a Master’s degree, but it was not realized that he had no idea what he was doing until he was assigned to teach Calculus. He went through the entire semester without getting to “the derivative” (in other words, he covered about 2 weeks of material in 16 weeks). The teacher’s whole class was excused from the Calculus departmental final because there was no way they could pass it, although they were still given credit for the course. The faculty member was a valued teacher because he passed all his students, so rather than be rid of him, administration saw to it that he received several individual “independent study” graduate courses over the summer, instantly making him qualified to teach collegiate mathematics.
The rumor mill is as productive at educational institutions as it is elsewhere, so I’ve avoided, above, the non-integrity things I’ve only heard about and stuck with just a few of the things I have personal knowledge of, spreading out my references amongst institutions. These are but a few examples of “integrity” at accredited schools, and I know full well these sorts of activities are covered up as much as possible by the administration. I’ve left out the many “students” that have been talked into taking on a life-destroying amount of debt while spending many productive years in pursuit of a pointless degree; more than a few of these students are not intellectually capable of understanding what they are doing to themselves and what institutions are doing to them when these students agree to accept student loans. I doubt seriously this sort of behavior satisfies SACS’ definition of integrity, or anyone else’s, outside of administration. I also doubt that these incidents, even if/when SACS is made aware of them, would cost an institution its accreditation. The SACS document concludes with a handwave, a statement that “The institution acts with integrity in all matters,” and then moves on to the next topic. As is always the case in this document, there are no teeth: an already accredited institution can violate the rules with relative impunity, with no penalties given. When caught, the university has plenty of time to show it’s not violating accreditation any more, but need not compensate victims or otherwise be concerned about consequences of violating accreditation.
2. Core Requirements
Admin: “You’ve failed this student five times, and he needs to pass College Algebra to get his degree.”
(the core requirements for graduation force most students to take at least 3 hours of math)
Me: “He can’t pass the course, and, frankly, having seen his writing skills, I don’t see how he can pass most any other college course.”
Admin: “He needs to pass College Algebra.”
Me: “I don’t want to say this student is capable of doing things he clearly cannot do. “
Admin: “Well, can we just make up an independent study course, and use that to give him credit for his math requirement?”
Me: “That would satisfy the core requirements.”
--Conversation with administration; I’m rather disappointed in myself that this didn’t even occur to me as another example of questionable integrity.
SACS Core Requirements aren’t quite the same thing as the requirements a student needs to get a degree. Instead, these are the basic things an institution needs to get accreditation, almost none of which has much to do with an education.
2.1 The institution has degree granting authority…
While this is desirable to have from the student’s point of view, it’s not related to getting an education. It simply means the institution has governmental authority to print out a piece of paper saying the student has some sort of education. Such authority is worth something, but the reputation of the degree-granter is worth so much more. Most people would find an “unofficial” degree in Computer Design and Programming signed by Bill Gates as vastly superior to a similarly named degree granted by a community college, even if only the latter has the “authority” to grant a degree.
2.2 The institution has a governing board of at least five members…the presiding officer and a majority of the board are free of…financial interest in the institution.
The ellipses are abbreviations to make the statements more manageable, but enough remains to get the gist of the clause; I’ll do this often, for the sake of brevity. It’s interesting that before a single classroom is opened, there need to be five administrators (almost certainly making vast amounts of money in the system) ruling over it. At least only a few of them can have a direct financial interest in the institution. Despite this wording allowing for some possibly questionable behavior, I’ve never seen anything more than just a little shady, and I’m not sure having a financial interest is such a bad thing.
One wonders how for-profit institutions deal with this requirement. If they hire the board and pay them to govern the institution, how is the pay completely not a financial interest?
2.3 The institution has a chief executive officer…not the presiding officer of the board.
This is almost one more person necessary before the college can open an accredited classroom, since the CEO could also be just a board member. Of all the administration, the CEO is the only one that merits mention in this entire document. As far as accreditation is concerned, no other administrators are necessary. Keep that in mind.
2.4 The institution has a clearly defined…mission statement….addresses teaching and learning.
At least an accredited institution has a mission statement, although the SACS requirement doesn’t indicate the statement need be followed.
Here is a typical college’s statement, suitable as a template for most 2-year institutions: “River Parishes Community College is an open-admission, two-year, post-secondary public institution serving the river parishes. The College provides transferrable courses and curricula up to and including Certificates and Associates degrees. River Parishes Community College also partners with the communities it serves by providing programs for personal, professional, and academic growth.
An additional part of the RPCC statement addresses how it will achieve its mission (“Retention” is the fifth word, mentioned before education), and talks a bit about how there will be learning. It’s nice that all institutions are obligated to have a statement where teaching and learning is talked about, but this is just some words on a piece of paper (or computer screen, for online students), and that’s all accreditation requires here.
You won’t find a mission statement saying how the institution intends to provide high paying jobs for as many administrators as possible; in light of what we’ll see later, this is something of a surprise, since it’s a mission many institutions clearly aspire to achieve.
2.5 The institution engages in…evaluation processes that…demonstrate the institution is effectively accomplishing its mission.
“I hate reviewing [Professor]’s work for SACS. Most of her students just cut-and-paste their papers, and I don’t want to fail almost everyone. Does she even care her students cheat that much?”
--Comment I made at a SACS-related compliance meeting to administration. Nothing came of it, other than now most professors review their own SACS submissions showing their students’ work.
Finally we come to something that might relate to education—this is “institutional effectiveness”, showing that perhaps the institution is actually educating students. Every institution self-reports it to the point that general faculty don’t seem to be part of the process, to judge by the four I've worked at.
Although it’s not said here, institutions can’t simply use grades for the courses as evidence. It’s too easy to submit bogus grades, I suppose, so SACS requires some other evaluation process….with the same instructors that could give bogus grades completing the process.
What an institution does to show institutional effectiveness is every faculty in every class gives a simple assignment that complies with our general education requirements. I repeat: this is a very simple assignment, where the student is walked through each question to show specifically that we’re doing what we say we’re doing. To make sure the students do the assignment, they’re collected and graded—students quite understandably won’t do assignments if there’s no grade involved. It’s a very mild form of grade inflation, acceptable in the name of pleasing SACS.
Then the SACS assignments are turned in to our compliance person. Then, next semester we all get together, and the assignments are passed back to their respective faculty. The faculty member then rubber stamps his own assignments for his own students, and passes it back.
SACS doesn’t want to use course grades due to easy manipulation of results, but I just don’t see how this method is any less vulnerable to manipulation.
In times past, we were grading each others’ students’ work to give a veneer of legitimacy to it all, but that’s mostly not done now. It really is madness to have me grade an art student’s work, or for the theatre professor to grade a physics assignment, so this is forgivable chicanery.
Now, for SACS, we basically grade these assignments pass/fail (beyond whatever grading is used in the course), and then report what percent of our students we say are capable of answering an easy question in a controlled situation. The whole faculty gets together and is literally grading 5,000 assignments in an hour or two, so there’s just no way to have grading be complicated. Despite the obvious practical concerns, we have near constant intrusion from Educationists asking us to use a complicated multi-dimensional grading rubric packed with gobbledygook; this sort of discussion is saved for later.
There are three big issues here. First off, we’re encouraged to give our SACS assignments early in the semester; this is so that we can collect this data before the drop-off of students that comes when the checks get cashed. My pointing to administration that it’s not exactly fair to “demonstrate” we’re educating students that, in many cases, are just here for the checks falls on deaf ears.
We often do these SACS assignments for every class (even pre-sub-remedial courses). Our mission statement, above, says nothing about bringing students to the high school level, the statement says post-secondary education. With nearly the majority of our students in developmental courses, we should be excluding these as not part of our mission. Our results with these students shouldn’t even apply for SACS.
Finally, it seems blatantly obvious that we should focus on demonstrating we’re educating our students by only looking at the students that are graduating (i.e., looking at the students that we claim we’re educating) as opposed to everyone with a pulse, but such is only obvious to faculty and not the decision makers. Semester after semester, we show that we’re accomplishing our mission on students nearly as quickly as they come on campus, with nary a question asked about how silly that sounds.
Nonetheless, this is how “institutional effectiveness” is satisfied, by showing that we actually achieve our mission on basically every student within a few weeks of that student walking in the door. For added laughs, note that we self-report this by self-assessing how our own students do on assignments of our own choosing.
Being accredited is taken to mean the institution is legitimate, but this legitimacy is verified not by SACS, but by the institution…talk about foxes guarding henhouses. But at least with this clause there is something in accreditation that has something to do with education (or at least the institutional mission), so there is that.
(Graduate at commencement, in halting speech): “I am so gla’ that I went to dis Commun College. I love my time here. And sad that I mus’ go. Thank you Commun College!”
(After polite applause, another graduate, same commencement, to cheers of adulation): “Never give up! Never give up! Never give up! Never give up! If I can do it, so can you! Never give up! Never give up! Never give up! Never give up!”
--two students were invited to talk at graduation, to share their experiences.
Imagine if instead of all the self-reporting, SACS actually took a look at the graduates, and verified with their own eyes that the graduates really were capable of doing work comparable to what we’re saying they can do. Accrediting might mean something if accrediting agencies really verified that degree-holding students had some sort of verifiable education.
“Trust, but cut the cards.”
2.6 The institution is in operation and has students enrolled in degree programs.
I certainly agree this is something a student would want. This does set up something of a death-trap for students that require remediation (or “developmental”) work. These students, if they want to go to an accredited institution, must go to a degree granting institution, which can’t focus its resources on remedial students. Students that failed to learn to read at the 5th grade level, but nonetheless have a high school diploma, and legitimately want to learn, probably should go to a special school more able to handle their needs, instead of being poured into postsecondary education schools that must have and support degree programs to be accredited.
Too bad, since people with such a low level of education might need special help the most.
Of course, “We want to build a special school to teach adults the things they should have learned in primary and secondary school, charging them a second time for the privilege” probably isn’t as easy a sell to a community than “We want to build an institution of higher learning”, even though the former is often a more accurate representation of what’s going on in college.
2.7 This is a large section, broken into smaller components:
2.7.1 The institution offers…degree programs.
Me: “I see you have 165 hours now. You know we’re a 2 year college, and all our degrees take less than 70 hours?”
Student (with at least some shame): “Yep.”
For a time, faculty could easily see the number of hours each student had already passed. This student was my record for that semester, although others had over 100 hours, many getting financial aid.
It’s interesting that there’s no such thing as an accredited school that doesn’t offer a degree. It really seems like certain subjects (industrial chemistry, for example) might be a singular focus for a school, without forcing the school to also have to cover various other topics. In any event, having a degree program is no guarantee that an accredited college will actually push the students towards getting a degree, and I’ve seen many students with hours far beyond what should be necessary to get a 2 year degree…and, like my example above, a few that have enough for a 4-year degree.
2.7.2 The Institution offers degree programs that embody a coherent course of study…
Me: “Ok, once you finish your first Statistics test, you can hand it to me and go.”
Student: “You mean this isn’t Physical Sciences with [another professor]?”
--Exchange between me and a student, a month into the semester. The student had attended at least ten classes, and had the syllabus as well as book for my course.
It rather makes sense that the degree program covers the right subject, but it really seems like a student could figure this out quickly, even if my example above shows that is probably a bad assumption.
This isn’t a difficult requirement to be met, most institutions have no trouble just copy the degree programs of previously accredited institutions.
2.7.3 In each undergraduate program, the institution requires the successful completion
of a general education component…
“I really wish we could get rid of the math requirement. It would help our passing rates so much.”
--administrator bemoaning one of the few checks on administrative avarice, in an address to students.
This is an important section, the general education, or core, requirement, the primary reason colleges and universities look the way they do, with their “ivory towers” scattered across campus, each devoted to a particular field of knowledge.
This is the section that forces students to take a few hours of math, a few hours of English, and so on. This is the section that motivated the Vice-Chancellor at my college to announce to his students how much he wanted to get rid of math. This is the section that caused the Dean at another university to publicly criticize the math department for being such an “impediment to graduation.” At some point in ages past, educated people got together and agreed that there was a body of knowledge that all educated people shared. This body of knowledge can shift over time—Latin was important to the educated of a century ago, while today knowledge of statistics or even how to type on a keyboard might be argued as more necessary knowledge to an educated person in the modern world.
This is the section that gives me and my colleagues so much job security, I know thoroughly that most students wouldn’t take my math classes if they could avoid it. I’m hard pressed to feel hypocritical about forcing students to give me a job, but I have a handy rationalization: I went to college much like my students, and I had to take many courses in fields I cared little about.
Like all other students, I was forced to take a year of another language. Even though I took two years of Spanish in high school, my alma mater had me take a year of French. I’ve never actually used French, but it did help me to gain a better understanding of English and European languages—knowledge of two European languages gives me a shot at translating the gist of passages in Italian or even Latin. When I try to convince my students that math is just another language, that when the student sits down and learns how to read and write in the mathematical language, he needs to use the same skills he used when he’s learning a new language, I get blank looks: students no longer are required to learn an additional language in high school, or in college (some of my English professor associates assure me that learning English isn’t a requirement, either).
I was forced to take a political science course, despite my caring very little for politics at that age. All I remember is the very first day, when the professor announced “Nixon is the most brilliant president this country has ever had.” Still, I did learn that even the most reviled person can have admirers. Writing a paper on a subject I cared little about and memorizing a timeline of important events at least showed me I could do such things, even if I don’t consciously remember the political paper or events. The knowledge that I can be competent even far out of my experience and interest may even have helped me in graduate Education and Administration courses, addressed later in this book.
Despite my miserable handwriting (a problem in an era before computers and printers everywhere), I was forced to take English courses as well. Failing to convince an English professor that “facet” can apply to various sides of an argument, and doesn’t strictly refer to gemstones, is partly how I ended up majoring in mathematics, and if I learned little English, I did at least learn to be more careful dealing with people that may not be the most reasonable.
“Why isn’t he here? I have 85 students on this roster. One is missing. Where is he?”
--physics professor in 1985, noticing that I had dropped his class. Friends passed on his disappointment to me.
I also took a year of Physics. I dropped Physics the first time I took it, on the first day, not even showing up to class. A single student dropping was noteworthy in 1985! Compare that to 2012, when 20% of students not coming to the first class doesn’t raise an eyebrow, and a 50% drop rate overall is standard. I loathed the lab work, although I did appreciate seeing a proof of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the E = MC2 part of it, anyway. Freshmen and Sophomores are exposed to fractions as college material in the 21st century, but a generation ago they were shown the most important concepts of the modern world. Of course they were, that’s what education used to mean.
These are just a few of the courses I was forced to take, “impeding” my graduation with a mathematics degree. I, and most all academics, were subjected to these general education requirements. In retrospect, there are many gaps in those requirements, gaps I filled in adulthood, but the requirements did give me the foundation to learn whatever else I wanted to learn.
“…in the upscale neighborhood was an ice cream store. One of the confections on sale was ice cream in the shape of a very large female breast, covered in a chocolate coating.
This shows how wealthy white people, even in the 20th century, still long for their huge black mammies of the slave-owning days.”
--paraphrased excerpt from a textbook used in another course on my campus. My family came to this country well after the Civil War, but I promise you I have no particular longing for black mammies. I do like chocolate covered ice cream, however. I feel the need to point out: this passage was not in the book as an example of ridiculous thinking for educated people to point at and laugh.
Back to my own field, I still feel a little hypocrisy about forcing students to learn rudimentary math just because of this arbitrary accreditation rule. Learning another language might arguably be more useful, and I don’t know how loudly I would have protested the removal of that requirement, not that my protestations would have been noticed. The math requirement is singled out often as the most onerous requirement, but so many of those general education requirement courses are so bogus and content-free that the problem isn’t that math courses are so hard…it’s that so many other courses are a joke, to judge by assignments, textbooks, and other materials I’ve observed from them, along with discussions with students over the years.
“It’s just common sense stuff.”
--Faculty member, describing her course material. I thought it an odd thing to say at the time.
SACS, of course, looks at what the college course catalogue and syllabi say about the course to see if it meets the standards of a legitimate college course. Even if the course looks like it might be legitimate by reading the course catalogue, this means nothing. There are topics in the course catalogue for, say, “College Algebra” that I’ve never covered, and administration doesn’t care, instead I receive pressure to cover even less material than what we self-report to SACS that we cover.
Even the course syllabus passed out by the instructor means nothing. At my school in Spring 2012, another math professor only made it to Chapter 2 for the whole semester (I get to chapter 5), not even coming close to what the catalogue or his own syllabus says the course is. He gets special consideration from admin (and that’s money) indirectly because he passes so many students, and from personal knowledge I know he isn’t the only math instructor who has done the like.
“It’s all common sense.”
--Different faculty member, describing material in his course on a different subject. I don’t even consider my basic remedial courses just common sense, instead being knowledge that humanity worked to understand, a long time ago.
Back to the point, SACS does force colleges to inflict a wide range of subject matter, at least in theory, on their students. Are there students actually learning the material, or faculty actually teaching it, leading to an education? No, that question isn’t addressed by accreditation, so accreditation has nothing to do with that at all, Administration rather discourages such activity for the most part, instead self-reporting that institutions are doing their job.
“Everyday knowledge, most things anyone could guess at. Look ‘em in the eye when you talk, stuff like that.”
--Another faculty member, describing material in his course, unrelated to the previous two common knowledge courses.
SACS does send people on campus, providing long advance notice for their arrival. The SACS people look, I’m told, at some turned in assignments and things, but if accreditation were taken seriously, why not just enroll some SACS people in a decent sampling of the courses offered, and see with their own eyes that the coursework and grading is valid? There’s no excuse for not doing so at an open admissions institution, particularly with so many courses offered online. Thousands of hours of form-filling out by administrators and faculty for SACS, and a nearly like amount of time is spent by SACS employees filling out their own forms…but SACS can’t spare the time to do a direct check at what is really going on at the institution.
Administrator: “Congratulations to [student], for her degree, with a concentration in math.”
--my college has given many 2 year degrees with concentrations in math. This is curious, as the most advanced course we’ve ever taught on campus is Elementary Calculus 1. While this is the most advanced course our “math students” see in their two years, this used to be the course non-math students took their first semester on campus.
The general education requirement gets trimmed every few years. Recently in my state, the math requirement has been scaled back to 3 hours, just “College Algebra”. Twenty years ago, this level of algebra was typical for a high school graduate (or at least a 10th grader). Now this ability to think abstractly is going to be the theoretical maximum of what can be expected from a college graduate. As I struggle to address concepts in calculus and statistics with students that cannot add fractions, I imagine fractions will be reserved for people with graduate degrees in another decade or two.
The reason for the scaling back is straightforward: doing so will increase passing rates. Administrators influence the general education requirements, after all.
“They don’t need this.”
--typical administrator complaint, justifying the removal of another chapter, or a whole course.
Algebra isn’t necessary for leading a successful life. Neither is being able to speak a foreign language, nor understanding the basics of modern science, nor is being able to write a coherent essay, nor is being able to read and comprehend a work of literature from a prior century.
As we cut back the general education requirement further and further, it becomes that much easier to find college graduates who have no, or minimal, skills in reading, writing, mathematics, or any other measurable knowledge.
Conferral of a degree is an assertion that a person has an education, knows the things “all educated people know”, with perhaps some concentration in some area. “All educated people know” may well be a matter of opinion, but “nothing,” the educational goal of many institutions, seems to be an awfully small amount considering the kind of money being spent on education.
2.7.4 The Institution provides instruction for all coursework required for at least one degree program…or…uses some other alternative approach to meeting this requirement...
“I need this course to graduate, and it’s full again. Why is it offered only once a year?”
--common student complaint.
This fits in nicely with forcing only degree-granting institutions to get accredited, they must also actually offer the courses with instruction. What’s interesting here is that is there is no requirements that provision need be in a timely manner, and quite often my students that move on to four year degrees complain that the courses they need to graduate are seldom offered in a way they can take them.
2.8 The number of full time faculty is adequate to support the mission of the institution ensure the quality and integrity of its programs. Upon application for candidacy, the institution demonstrates that it meets the comprehensive standard for faculty qualifications.
“As you know, this university has experienced major growth in the last few years. To support this growth, we’re going to allow our Developmental Department instructors to teach some of our introductory-level college courses.”
--One accredited institution’s method of making sure there were enough sections available; developmental instructors need not even have a Master’s degree.
The first sentence of this clause is rather poorly defined, which is why most institutions get away with hiring vast numbers of part-time employees to cover their courses. What’s “adequate”? Nobody but administration knows, but supporting the quality and integrity of programs is fairly low on the list of goals for many institutions. While the institution must demonstrate they use qualified faculty when applying for accreditation (“upon application for candidacy”), this clause makes it clear that afterwards, no such effort need be made.
2.9 The institution…supports…library collections.
It certainly is good that every accredited institution must have a library and other such resources. I emphasize this is typical of what accreditation assures: it asserts that the institution could theoretically give an education if it so desired.
2.10 The institution provides student support programs…
Again, this just theoretically means the institution can help with learning; these programs are poorly defined, although many institutions do have vastly bloated support programs, constantly begging students to come and use them. Even with very minimal (at best) participation, these programs seem to go on forever.
2.11 This section is broken into smaller sections:
2.11.1 The institution has a sound financial base…
This is simply an assurance that the institution won’t just blow away, certainly of value to students. Of course, a few accredited institutions in New Orleans did just that when Katrina came through.
2.11.2 The Institution has adequate physical resources….
“Can I have even one class this semester not in a trailer?”
The influx of students and growth of administration and support means that classroom space (and parking space) can be very limited at institutions, but this clause at least forces administration to provide trailers for the students, even if providing such might cut into other things the administration could do. Online institutions have an easier time with this, and doubtless the lower overhead is why online offerings are strongly encouraged at many institutions.
While I’ve seen many a classroom converted into administrative or support offices, not once has a classroom trailer ever been considered good enough for an administrator to use as his office. Hmm.
2.12 The institution has developed a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP)…
“What does this have to do with math? And why do we keep having to do this every class?”
--common complaints by student upon receiving a QEP assignment. Some students at my institution have completed over a dozen QEP assignments now.
The QEP is quite an annoyance at my institution. Each semester, each faculty member, in every class, has to issue a QEP assignment (in this case, it’s to “Improve Information Literacy”). It doesn’t matter if the course has nothing to do with information literacy, we have to give the assignment, and, of course, it has to count for a grade (otherwise the students won’t do it). Every class. Every student. Every semester. This means every student (or at least those taking more than one course in a semester) has to perform multiple QEP assignments, every semester, for years.
All faculty grade these en masse on a single day. As you might expect, these assignments are very simple. Much like the SACS assignments mentioned above, to facilitate grading thousands of such assignments in a very brief time, each member quite often grades his own assignments and structures them for easy grading. Many just give the same assignment every semester (I switch a number or two around on mine), so many students perform the same assignment three or more times. Naturally, our assessments of our students’ ability to complete QEP assignments are generally improving, and this pleases administration.
We have the same students literally answering the same questions semester after semester…and the rising scores are taken as evidence that we’re accomplishing our QEP, and giving an education to our students.
After the Core Requirements come the Comprehensive Standards. As we’ll see, very little of this does much to ensure the institution is really educating anyone:
3. Comprehensive Standards
3.1 The mission statement is current and comprehensive…
Certainly all well and good, but this is of little value to students. What’s interesting is many of these statements are very similar from institution to institution. Well, it might be interesting to outsiders, but from the inside, it’s little surprise, as many institutions, at inception, just “cut and paste” the sorts of gook that form mission statements from other, accredited, institutions, and modify it slightly, so that it’s one less hurdle to clear to get accreditation.
3.2 Governance and Administration
This entire section covers relationships between the governing bodies, chief administrative officer, and administration. There’s quite a bit here, but all of it is far removed from anything relating to students and education. The title alone should be sufficient indication there will be nothing here regarding education. There is a clause mandating “periodic” evaluation of administrators; this evaluation would be done by administrators, of course, and the criteria are not published. Compare this to faculty, who are “regularly” evaluated (with no explanation of the different word), by criteria that are published (3.7.2).
While “regularly” and “periodic” can be viewed as synonyms, why is the true manner of evaluation of administrators a big secret? Because of this, one can only guess administrative goals by administrative actions: grow the institution, get more students by any means possible, retain more students by any means possible, get more pay…probably not in that order.
3.3 Institutional Effectiveness
3.3.1 The institution identifies expected outcomes, assesses the extent to which it achieves those outcomes and provides evidence of improvement based on analysis…
Here we come to a section where an accredited institution actually has to show in some way that it is improving in five different subsections, including “student learning outcomes”. The first one, 184.108.40.206, “Educational Programs, including Student Learning Outcomes”, is the most important subsection, as it partially addresses the education of the students (three of the other four subsections have nothing to do with students and education, with the remaining one partially addressing student support. One subsection, 220.127.116.11, addresses administrative support, leading one to wonder if supporting the students truly is less important than supporting the administrators).
In 18.104.22.168, not only is the institution required to identify “outcomes” (i.e., identify what is desired in the way of education), the institution also needs to show evidence of improvement. These outcomes are often reduced to easily quantifiable terms, for example, student retention.
It must be this way. Most of actual education is impossible to precisely define, much less precisely quantify the levels of education. It may be possible to say one student poem is better than another, for example, but to say with certainty that it’s objectively 2 points better, or 5 points better, or whatever? This is all but impossible in a single course, much less over several semesters of courses.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume this is possible and that steady improvement (necessary for accreditation according to this clause) is possible, and note the incredible lie that follows: there are accrediting bodies that ask for this as part of accreditation for decades, and yet we are to believe those accredited institutions are generally showing improvement in educating their students. If there is so much improvement in the manner in which education is provided, why is there endless evidence of grade inflation and greatly reduced coursework on college campuses? Improvement means doing more, not less.
How can such improvement exist when literally everyone familiar with the topic acknowledges students coming into college are weaker and less prepared than a generation or two ago? Institutions are improving their outcomes with less all the time, apparently.
So, the definition of “improvement” is kept simple…but the end result is accredited institutions always show improvement.
Where are the big breakthroughs that all this improvement should have? In addition to being less prepared, students study far less now than in years past. Probably as a result of the reduced student workload, measureable improvement in learning is minimal for a large percentage of students in their first two years2. And yet we’re to believe that education is “improving” at accredited institutions in a documented way, and that this improvement has been shown year in and year out for a very long time.
Even though improvement is completely impossible to legitimately show, I believe every accredited institution provides evidence of improvement on a near constant basis. I’ve sat in on many a meeting and been told by administrators that we need to show improvement. Even back when my school offered no government student loan money (because we weren’t accredited), and passing rates in my classes were higher than reported than at any accredited institution (because our students were primarily the ones that wanted to learn and paid with their own money), still administration was asking for improvement. I could have a 100% passing rate and still improvement was asked for. Yes, without student loans I might only have five students in my class (granting 4 As and a B, for example)…and I was asked to improve. Now, with all the loan money, I have 25 students in my class (giving 4 As, a B, a few C’s, and everyone else dropping)…and still I am told to improve.
Now this clause is basically impossible to satisfy, so it’s no great harm that, obviously, the “improvement” that accredited institutions show must be bogus. It may be forgivable that institutions give bogus results, but accrediting bodies forcing institutions to be deceptive in this category detracts greatly from the integrity of the rest of the process.
3.3.2 The institution has developed a Quality Enhancement Plan that (1) demonstrates institutional capability for the initiation, implementation, and completion of the QEP; (2) includes broad-based involvement of institutional constituencies in the development and proposed implementation of the QEP; and (3) identifies goals and a plan to assess their achievement.
I addressed my college’s particular QEP in 2.12, above. Note carefully what’s being asked here: the institution has to develop a QEP, prove that it can start, implement, and finish the QEP, include much of the institution in the QEP, and have a purpose to the QEP.
Comparatively speaking, the QEP and all it entails is five times as important as showing students are receiving some sort of education at the institution. Of course, in theory an institution could make “providing an education” a goal of the QEP, but this would be impossible to show quantitatively, and thus it would impossible to satisfy the requirements of this clause.
3.4 All educational programs.
3.4.1 The institution demonstrates that each program…is approved by the faculty and
It’s interesting that only one institution I’ve been at where my approval has ever
been asked regarding a program. Granted, I’m probably not qualified to approve an entire program, but considering the massive influence administration has over faculty, I do have my doubts about how important this is.
3.4.2 The institution’s continuing education, outreach, and service programs are consistent with the institution’s mission.
Note that the mission can be easily changed, so even if there is a problem here, it’s easily fixed.
3.4.3 The institution publishes admission policies that are consistent with its mission.
This is why most every institution has a line about how they admit everyone, regardless of race, gender, or whatnot. Since they all use basically the same mission, it rather follows they’ll have the same policies…and what college actually restricts admission all that much? Again, if there is a problem, it’s easy to change the mission statement.
3.4.4 The institution publishes policies that include criteria for evaluation, awarding, and accepting credit for transfer…ensures that course work and learning outcomes are at the collegiate level and comparable to the institution’s own degree programs. The institution assumes responsibility for the academic quality of any coursework recorded on the institution’s transcript.
“I’m a transfer student from [another institution]. I just wanted to touch base with you before the semester started. I’m really good in math, my girlfriend calls me a human calculator.”
--student entering my remedial math class, with credit from an earlier remedial course coming from elsewhere. You don’t get many “human calculators” taking remedial courses, and throughout the semester he demonstrated all 4,000 known human facial expressions for “complete confusion,” failing the course. I often wonder at the skills of his girlfriend, to evaluate him so highly.
Most every institution has hard posted rules regarding transfer credit; I’ve seen institutions refuse to accept their own coursework for degree programs, and I’ve seen transfer rules violated, with credit granted where it clearly shouldn’t be, despite written policy; it all depends on who you know in administration. The key here is “comparable to the institution’s own degree programs”, so in theory a college need not accept any transfer credit….all that is required for accreditation is that the policies be published, not that they be fair in any way.
You can usually count on accredited schools accepting at least some credit from other accredited schools, even if that credit won’t count for a degree. Nevertheless, a student wishing to transfer credit should resolve that issue first, before even applying to the school, and get that resolution in writing. The driving institutional need for more students usually will make it easier for transfer credit rules to bend if that’s what it takes to get a student.
I often get students utterly unqualified to take the courses they’re in, but were allowed to register based on transfer of credit from elsewhere. I can’t recall a single time the institution where the credit came from had to “assume responsibility” for the bogus coursework by returning the student’s money or the like.
3.4.5 The institution publishes policies that adhere to principles of good educational practice…
Certainly this is a reasonable thing to do, although “publish” and “follow” are very different things, and SACS doesn’t require following of policies…keep in mind always, that accreditation is supposed to be an assurance that the institution really is a place to get an education, and how very little of accreditation is about the one thing a student should care about. With so much of their money going to accredited institutions, taxpayers probably should care about it as well.
3.4.6 The Institution employs sound and acceptable practices for determining the amount and level of credit awarded for courses, regardless of format or mode of delivery.
The phrasing here is to support, presumably, online and correspondence courses, which are very different than traditional classroom courses, enough to merit discussion on online courses in a different chapter.
There are still serious institutions that offer correspondence courses, with students literally completing the course material through physically mailing their work; these “dinosaur” courses are unchanged from when they first were created, decades ago. I can only guess that there was a time when accreditation meant something, and these courses represent the standards of that time. I do some tutoring on the side, and students taking correspondence courses are often overwhelmed enough to hire me for an hour or more a week while they struggle through the concepts. I’ve yet to see a correspondence course that wasn’t much harder than a traditional course offered today.
For now, however, note that this clause assures, sort of, that the student will get the same credit for a course regardless of delivery method.
“Online schools? Like University of Phoenix, those guys? Right in the trash…”
--HR director describing treatment of resumes with online degrees.
This is all well and good I suppose, but I bet students would quickly avoid a method (say, online) if that method awarded zero credit. Curiously, online schools, even accredited ones, give no notification that their coursework is held in minimal esteem in the real world. Sometimes this low esteem is for good reason, though it’s fair to consider in light of the evidence, “brick and mortar” schools may be getting too much credit. Whenever there’s a faculty position open at my college, we get numerous applicants who have one (or more) online graduate degrees from often really odd-sounding fields; administration generally don’t call such people in for interviews.
3.4.7 The institution ensures the quality of educational programs and courses offered through consortial relationships…
This is actually a fairly relevant clause, since otherwise a legitimate school could simply contract out to a non-legitimate school most or all of their students and coursework. Still, a school that does this will probably lose its honest student base long before it loses accreditation, and once again the institution self-regulates its own legitimacy.
3.4.8 The institution awards academic credit for coursework taken on a noncredit basis only where there is documentation that the noncredit course work is equivalent…
I guess this applies to some small percentage of students, but realize that
“documentation” is just words on paper, it’s easy enough to provide, and all it takes past that point is a compliant administrator, faculty aren’t a factor in this decision.
3.4.9 The institution provides appropriate academic services.
“You can get a good education here, if that’s what you want and you work to get it. You can also get a not-so-good education here, if that’s what you want or aren’t careful.”
--another faculty member, describing the situation at an accredited institution I taught at.
Insofar that “appropriate” is in the eye of the beholder, this is a fine line. Accredited or not, a prospective student should check and see what the services are, verifying that they’re appropriate to the particular student.
One academic service that is often lacking is academic counseling. After twenty years, I can’t count the number of student complaints I’ve heard regarding getting bad counseling advice what courses to take to further the student’s academic career. I don’t recall a single student ever saying he got good advice, though I admit a student would have little reason to tell me such a thing.
Still, with most students taking 6 or more years to get a degree, it’s clear administration isn’t doing much of a job when it comes to advising students what classes to take to get a degree in a timely manner.
3.4.10 The institution places primary responsibility for the content, quality, and effectiveness of the curriculum with its faculty.
“This course is bogus.”
“There’s no content here.”
“How are we supposed to spend 16 weeks on a course with only 4 weeks of material?”
--Faculty responses to a highly gutted mathematics course introduced by administration. Nonetheless, the course was forcibly approved, as a small minority of faculty were willing to teach it, for bonus considerations.
This is a questionable clause, and I’ve certainly seen it violated in practice. For the most part, faculty have nothing to do with the curriculum, outside of elective courses of their own construction. Degree programs must have about all the same courses, and those courses must all have about the same material in them, at least on paper. What actually happens in those courses is nowhere addressed by accreditation, and even if faculty object to the curriculum, they can be easily overruled.
3.4.11 For each major in a degree program, the institution assigns responsibility for program coordination, as well as for curriculum development and review, to persons academically qualified…
Degree programs and majors are almost all cut-and-pasted from institutions that already have such degree programs and majors, not that there’s anything wrong with that (a bachelor’s in psychology should mean nearly the same thing from State University or Harvard, after all). Academically qualified is a nice restriction, although you don’t need to be qualified in the actual field of the program. There are Ph.D. degrees in “curriculum” or “education,” and these fields somehow make the recipient qualified for this responsibility regardless of knowledge of any subject material.
3.4.12 The institution’s use of technology enhances student learning and is appropriate…students have access to and training in the use of technology.
While at first glance this seems like a nice thing to have in an accredited institution, note how nothing here is really defined. “Appropriate” and “technology” are almost meaningless, and access could just be a single computer in the campus library. It would seem a degree program that specifically uses technology would have training, but what does that constitute for a random student? My college offers a course that helps the students identify the disk drive, the tower case, and the mouse (to judge by questions from a test in the course), and the course is used to satisfy this clause. This is “training”, I suppose.
Computer training used to be a general requirement of our students, but it was removed. A factor in removing it was the extreme difficulty in finding qualified, degreed people willing to teach these “Mickey Mouse” (as the teachers of those courses describe them) courses for the money the administration is willing to pay. A Master’s Degree in Computer Science opens up doors to well paying, legitimate, jobs, leaving few recipients of such degrees available for teaching. The skills are simply too economically useful for people with such skills to have much interest in teaching, so institutions get rid of the courses, rather than make teaching the skills more attractive. A simple look at job openings reveals a plethora of openings for people with real computer skills.
Meanwhile, the college course catalogues are jammed with completely worthless courses, filled with skills and knowledge taught by people that can’t get a job in the real world with such skills and knowledge.
Isn’t it fascinating how useful skills are taken out of the college curriculum, and useless courses inserted in, by administration? How is it even a puzzle that so many college graduates are unemployable?
3.5 Undergraduate Educational Programs
3.5.1 The institution identifies college-level general education competencies and the extent to which the students have attained them.
This is somewhat redundant to what was addressed above, so forgive a somewhat redundant commentary here. One might think the grades assigned from the course would address these competencies. This is not the case, instead, there is a general competency for a course, say “the student can solve a word problem”, that is given. A faculty member at my college would then create a problem, assign it to his own students, and assess if the student can do it.
Almost exclusively these competencies are addressed with students that have not graduated, and in many cases not even been on campus but a few weeks. Nevertheless, these competencies are met with a high proportion of students. As I discussed above, this is all self-reported, at no point does SACS actually create a competency, or verify that students can demonstrate such competencies in anything like a controlled situation.
And, of course, SACS never seems to wonder why we need years to train a student when we consistently document competencies being shown after but a few weeks of classes.
3.5.2 At least 25 percent of the credit hours required for the degree are earned through instruction offered by the institution awarding the degree.
This just keeps a student from earning all his credits at one institution, and transferring it over to another and getting the degree quickly; the vast bulk of institutions put such restrictions on transfer credit that this would be a difficult clause to violate, and this is about the only advantage that non-accredited schools have to offer: a quick degree.
3.5.3 The institution publishes requirements for its undergraduate programs, including its general education components. These requirements conform…
Much like before, it’s almost impossible not to have conformity in programs, and it’s already pretty natural to put such requirements in student handbooks and elsewhere.
3.5.4 At least 25 percent of the course hours in each major…are taught by faculty members holding an appropriate terminal degree.
This is nice clause, but self-reported, easily manipulated, and for all that easy enough to satisfy with adjuncts. It is interesting that clauses like this mean you really need a Ph.D. in math to teach 10th grade algebra; it’s hard to be upset at such outrageous efforts at my own job security.
3.6 Graduate and Post-Baccalaureate Degree programs.
This particular section is of little interest to the new college student and parallels 3.5, so not covered in detail in this book. The only interesting clause is the first, where it is specified that the graduate courses are more advanced in content than the undergraduate programs. This alleged “more advanced” content is self-reported, of course, and I’ll look at online graduate courses in a later chapter.
3.7.1 The institution employs competent faculty members…
“Any function that is differentiable is continuous, and any continuous function is differentiable.”
“The probability that the population mean is in the 95% confidence interval is .95.”
“Every function has an inverse.”
--quotes from three different qualified (via “Math Education” degree) and experienced faculty regarding material in three different mathematics courses they were actually teaching, at an accredited institution where I was employed (for the uninitiated, these are all embarrassing things to say for a professor in this field, comparable to a history or geography expert saying in all seriousness “George Washington conquered Tokyo and then marched the Continental Army to nearby Moscow in less than a week.”)
The competence of faculty is, of course, self-reported by the institution. I’ve observed more than my fair share of faculty members of questionable knowledge of the topics they teach. Every few years, another bogus “Ph.D.” who has been teaching in academia for years is discovered. Yes, those fake professors are caught, so that could be taken as evidence the system works…but they’re not caught by the accrediting agency, they’re caught by the institution (because this is self-reported), and the years it takes for such frauds to be identified don’t give me much confidence, even if, as I suspect, they are fairly rare people. Of great interest to me is how often these frauds are popular with students and administration, almost as though popularity facilitates surviving and prospering when competence is questionable. Key to this: there is no mechanism for identifying if a professor is teaching a bogus course.
Pensacola State College fired a tenured professor Tuesday amid allegations that he presented college administrators with an unaccredited master’s degree from an online diploma mill…3
The University of Pennsylvania’s vice dean, Doug Lynch, tricked school officials into believing he held a master’s degree as well as a doctorate from Colombia University.
UPenn discovered Lynch’s deceit, however, they kept him on in a leadership role regardless of his false claims.4
---isn’t it fascinating that faculty with bogus degrees are fired (and he had tenure, to give an idea how long it took to discover), but not administrators, who can still be kept on “in a leadership role.” Since administrators hire and fire both faculty and administrators, it’s not much of a surprise at all. Administration has complete control over education now, and it shows.
This SACS clause, of course, only regards flat out bogus degrees, not competence. It’s quite possible for someone with a bogus degree to nevertheless be a competent teacher, although I’m not sure SACS would take kindly to such a possibility. Bogus faculty members (or even the administrator, above) can work for years before the fraud is discovered. In any event, it’s more common for me to see people with “legitimate” credentials to have no knowledge of the material they supposedly teach.
3.7.2 The institution regularly evaluates…each faculty member….
“[The professor]’s courses are a snap. Tests are all multiple choice, no writing. You learn nothing in class, just read the book. Easy.”
--description of the classes taught by a professor that gets generally perfect evaluations every year, moving smoothly up the promotion ladder.
This is just the annual job evaluation, no different than anyplace else. You might be wondering if somewhere in the SACS document there’s a clause where each administrator is regularly evaluated by faculty. No, there is not, certainly not in a meaningful sense.
These evaluations are interesting things, and almost entirely depend on how well the faculty member is doing what the administrator wants. “Not having to hear students complain” is very high on the list of administrative desires. Realize this is nearly interchangeable with “not having failing students” (i.e., “high retention”)--my personal estimate for the probability that a given complaining student is also failing is around 0.95, and a faculty member with few complaints and high retention can find himself getting high marks in other categories of the evaluation, say for publishing, community service, or whatever, regardless of actual efforts in those categories.
On the other hand, generating student complaints for any reason can result in lower ratings everywhere else in the evaluation; it’s not a random thing, and faculty quickly learn what not to do.
Me: “I see I’m docked a little under teaching policies. What’s the problem?”
Administrator: “Your grading policy uses a weighted average. You need to use points.”
My grading policy has 5% of a grade from attendance, 5% from homework, 60% from the three best tests of four in the course, and 30% from the cumulative final—thus the final grade is a weighted average, with tests (demonstrations of skill and knowledge) getting the most weight.
I have to make attendance/homework worth something (or else students won’t show up or do the work). If either is worth too much, I have to deal with a host of excuses, and any excuse I reject causes the student to complain to administration.
“I want a make-up for that last test. My brother beat my sister-in-law to death, so we all had to go to Mississippi to give moral support for the trial…”
--I’m not kidding, an actual excuse for missing a month of classes.
As I drop the student’s lowest test grade, no questions asked (to avoid hearing excuses), I have to make the final exam cumulative or else students that took the first three tests will consistently just blow off the last month of the semester (covered by the last test).
Thus, I use a weighted average. Actually demonstrating skills via tests is the most important part of a course to me, as it demonstrates student knowledge and skills. I’d prefer to treat my students as responsible adults, but I know they can make bad decisions. I help them by making homework and attendance worth something, even if it’s a little insulting to “make” an adult behave a certain way (in actuality, all students get full credit for homework and attendance, but I don’t tell them that).
Back to the point, I’m “graded” by my administrator using a published policy where I get 5% from volunteer work, 10% from committee work, 15% from the in class observation, and so on. My annual evaluation is a weighted average, given by an administrator who penalizes me for using a weighted average. Perhaps administration feeds on hypocrisy.
Anyway, SACS mandates every faculty member is regularly evaluated, and I agree that this is reasonable. I do wish the word “regularly” was replaced by “competently”, however.
3.7.3 The institution provides ongoing professional development of faculty…
“When Alexander the Great conquered Alexandria, it was called Memphis at the time, he found the Great Library there, and took the knowledge back to Greece to form the foundation of Western thought. How many of you were unaware of this?”
--Diversity speaker provided to us by our institution, with a Ph.D. in African History and decades of experience. Regrettably, only a few of the faculty were familiar enough with history to realize the issues with these claims. Fewer still had the guts to dare risk annoying administration by challenging the claims.
The institutions I’ve been at provide development, in the form of speakers that come by once or twice a year. I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but at my college, these speakers, often deeply ignorant of any subject, are there to tell us how to teach. I’ve been told many times to put less math (and more writing) in my math classes, to use more group projects==even if, as Academically Adrift, and common sense, says this negatively correlates with learning by the student5--and to give more credit for non-course things, like attendance. These speakers tell me these things, to “develop” my teaching skills.
Even with 20 years of experience I’m not a perfect teacher, and I still come across concepts that I know I’m not addressing clearly enough. I know “make attendance 20% of the course grade” is not improving my teaching, even if administration and these teaching experts believe otherwise. Luckily, I’ve always been able to find faculty, people with actual knowledgeable of my subject, to give real help in explaining topics when I was at a loss for ideas. This sort of development, or any other sort, isn’t mandated by SACS. Not once in a score of years has an official speaker helped me to address any concept I teach in my courses.
Multiculturalist: “On this page is a list of various types of people. Check off the ones you would teach.”
(The list has homosexual, black, murderer, pedophile, Catholic, etc).
Faculty: “Is this a joke?”
Multiculturalist (surprised): “No.”
--The multiculturalist happened to have his apartment near mine. He really likes The Cranberries, playing “Linger” at insane volume for hours on end.
The accreditation document doesn’t specify how the development will take place, which means the “development” will only be what administration wants it to be. At every institution I attended, such development was composed of invariably dubious talks on diversity, multiculturalism, political correctness, methods to increase retention, and patently absurd alternatives to teaching the subject material. As my quotes above show, sometimes this “development” can be completely outrageous in content.
Administration rarely, if ever, attends these discussions.
It probably would be better if faculty development were at the choosing of the self-serving faculty, instead of the self-serving administration, although either way it doesn’t necessarily do much for the student and can be very counter-productive when it comes to education.
3.7.4 The institution ensures adequate procedures for safeguarding and protecting academic freedom.
“[The professor] told us Jefferson had sex with his slaves. I didn’t need to hear that.”
--official complaint, impacting the professor’s annual evaluation (and not in a positive way).
I suppose for the most part there is academic freedom at my college and elsewhere. You’re free to do whatever you want as long as the students don’t complain and you have a high passing rate in your classes. Past that, I honestly haven’t seen any real restrictions on freedom.
3.7.5 The institution publishes policies on the responsibility and authority of faculty…
Not much in the way of rights, but certainly faculty have responsibilities. Faculty authority is very questionable, however. How can faculty have any authority over anything when it’s the administrators that have ultimate authority over the faculty in all things?
3.8 Library and Other Learning Resources
This section, in three parts, simply details that the institution theoretically has the tools so that if a student wants to get an education at the institution, he can do so on his own time using the resources at the institution. Between public libraries and the internet, this isn’t hardly granting much more than what anyone with a car or internet connection can achieve.
3.9 Student Affairs and Services
3.9.1 The institution publishes a clear and appropriate statement of student rights and responsibilities…
Note how students specifically get rights; not so much for faculty (see 3.7.5, above.)
3.9.2 The institution protects the security…of student records…
“Those printouts we hand you at the beginning of the semester? Please don’t throw them away, they have student records on them.”
--administrative warning, explaining why faculty offices have piles of papers in them. Some faculty offices are pristine, but administration has yet to figure out how that happens.
What’s interesting here is there is no prescribed penalty for failure to protect student records. There have been quite a few security leaks at institutions, and many grade-changing scandals, with nary a hint of a school losing accreditation over it.
3.9.3 The institution provides a sufficient number of qualified staff…
PR director at my institution: “Did that reporter ever get in touch with you? He asked me to help, but I didn’t know your contact information.”
Me: “Luckily I was in the phone book and he thought to look there. The interview was in the paper yesterday.”
PR director: “It was? Can I get a copy?”
(She had a copy of that very paper sitting on her desk, which I picked up and handed to her. A few days later, a local television reporter interviews me. I bump into the PR Director on campus:)
Me, to PR director: “Thanks for directing the TV reporter to me.”
PR director: “You were on TV? Did you get a recording?”
Me: “What is your job, again?”
--I didn’t say that last line, but did provide her with a recording of the interview. I created an elective “Game Writing” course, which attracted some local media attention before a shooting on another campus drowned it out.
“Sufficient” is in the eye of the beholder, but I suspect this clause is often used to justify the massive administrative and support bloat discussed earlier. “Qualified” is also self-determined by administration, leading to all sorts of bizarre people attempting to do jobs they don’t know much about.
Student In My Writing Class: “You know that reporter that was here with the TV camera?”
Me: “Yeah, what about her?”
Student: “I paid her to write my papers for me in high school.”
--the student, incidentally, was in the Education program, hoping to become a physical education teacher.
3.10 Financial Resources
This section covers the various financial aspects of the institution, in four sections. There’s nothing here that addresses education, or even in the way of stopping student loans to customers that clearly aren’t at the institution to learn anything.
3.11 Physical Resources
This section, in three parts, merely assures that the institution has the physical resources to do whatever it feels like doing. A safe environment is mandated, which, if one were to really scrape hard, could count as contributing to education a little. It’s interesting that there’s nothing here addressing parking, which is a severe problem at almost every institution
Parking is a funny thing at institutions. A campus with 10 classrooms open at a given time, and 30 students per class, will need a place for 300 students to park their cars at the beginning of the semester at that time—300 cars, basically. By the end of the semester, those 10 classrooms will only require perhaps 100 spaces. Administration quite understandably doesn’t see the need to have 300 parking spaces when they’re only useful for the first few months of the semester. As long as administrative and faculty parking spaces are reserved, I guess it’s not a high priority for the institution. It’s probably the same for restaurants and grocery stores, as these places also don’t care to provide enough parking to handle peak use. Oh wait, they do care.
3.12 Responsibility for compliance with the Commission’s substantive change procedures and policy.
When an institution is accredited, it is only done so for the programs it has at the time it is accredited. Thus, a liberal arts school, once accredited, can’t immediately change over to a medical school and claim to be likewise accredited. This section details what to do when an institution wishes to add a new program, or otherwise wishes to make major changes in what it does. There’s nothing here of relevance to a student wondering if accreditation means education.
An institution that wishes to make major changes (say, by adding a new degree program) doesn’t lose accreditation for its other programs, it merely has to go through the relevant hoops detailed in this document to get its accreditation extended to the new program. It is theoretically possible to lose all accreditation by making substantive changes, but realistically this is as likely as a doctor accidentally amputating his own hand during an appendectomy.
3.13 Responsibility for compliance with other Commission policies
This very interesting section basically states that refusal to accredit can only come from not adhering to the clauses in the entire document or otherwise not following policies. Accreditation can’t be rejected based on simply not liking the institution; of course, so many of the above clauses are so ambiguously defined, it would be pretty trivial to put the squeeze on an undesirable institution if SACS so wished.
As the accreditation process generates $15,000, and annual fees, quite possibly much more, I don’t imagine SACS dislikes any institution whose check clears. Overall, the fees are actually fairly modest considering just how much money accreditation eventually grants to the institution via loan programs. The operating budget of accrediting bodies is usually just a few million, miniscule relative to the hundreds of thousands of students in the institutions in a region.
3.14 Representation of status with the Commission
This just states that the institution accurately represents where it is in the accreditation process, if it is accredited, and various other things relevant to accreditation.
One line is particularly fascinating here: “No statement may be made about the possible future accreditation status…” An institution cannot make a statement about a possible future accreditation status, for good or ill. Note that carefully: an institution that knows it is about to lose its accreditation due to gross violations is under no obligation to notify students, and in fact is not allowed to do so. An institution telling you that it is accredited not only is saying nothing about education, it’s not even saying much about it being accredited in the near future.
4. Federal Requirements
As mentioned before, all accrediting agencies need to be recognized by the Secretary of Education, and thus have to follow Federal guidelines as well, which are passed right on to the institutions they accredit.
4.1 The institution evaluates success with respect to student achievement consistent with its mission. Criteria may include: enrollment data; retention, graduation, course completion, and job placement rates; state licensing examinations; student portfolios; or other means of demonstrating achievement of goals.
While many clauses are heavily abbreviated and edited, this clause is included in full to emphasize: education is not a recommended part of any success measure. Lack of education as a goal is baked into the system. Enrollment data could count towards success--just get the warm bodies. Graduation can be success--just print out the slips of paper. Course completion can be success--it’s just graduation on a smaller scale.
I get the feeling few institutions use job placement rates and state licensing examinations (outside of technical schools), since those are outside the control of the institution. Student portfolios could well be a means of showing education, although no institution at which I’ve taught or attended uses them in general. Other means could be used to show success, but I doubt an administration would use the imagination to consider other means with so many easily quantifiable methods provided.
4.2 The institution’s curriculum is directly related and appropriate to the mission and goals of the institution…
“I know for a fact I’m never going to use this.”
--common student complaint, often accurate. In a physical education course, students do hundreds of jumping jacks, an exercise with no direct application in the real world. Similarly, students do many exercises in my math classes that have no specific applications.
While it’s nice that accreditation assures this, this clause is somewhat redundant to the above, and most students can usually figure out if it’s not the case. So much of what is taught is questionable when it comes to directly practical applications, both in my field and others.
My college has a Business (sometimes called “Elementary”) Calculus course, for example, and one might think such a course would relate to having a business. I’ve owned and run a variety of businesses (including a restaurant), I know in perfect detail that nothing in Business Calculus really helps with a business. I can mumble some half-hearted apology about how the course does teach attention to detail and rigor…but this isn’t enough to justify calling the course “Business Calculus”.
As always, institutions self-report the appropriateness of what they’re doing, so this sort of shenanigans is quite common.
4.3 The institution makes available to students and the public current academic calendars, grading policies, and refund policies.
Good to have, although this probably isn’t an issue with institutions.
4.4 Program length is appropriate for each of the institution’s educational programs.
“I have to take this senior level course to graduate, and it’s only offered in the Fall; it takes up every weekday afternoon from 1 to 4. I have to take this other senior level course to graduate, and it’s also only offered in the Fall, from 2 to 3 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. What the hell?”
--student complaint regarding a program at a nearby state university
While every program I’ve ever seen could theoretically be completed in 2 or 4 years (depending on the credit hours required), what penalties does the institution face if withdrawal policies are such that few students actually complete in that time? None. What happens if critical courses are offered so sparsely that it would be miraculous if a student managed to line up everything year to year to complete it in that time? Nothing. What happens if students manipulate loans and course taking so that it takes them quadruple or more the “appropriate” time to complete a program? Nothing.
These events are all very common, however, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess which part of the institution sets the policies that allow for it.
4.5 The institution has adequate procedures for addressing written student complaints and is responsible for demonstrating that it follows those procedures when resolving student complaints.
“[The professor] did not say ‘Good evening’ quickly enough to me when I said ‘Good evening’ to him.”
--written student complaint that required a response from the professor, who was encouraged to reply more quickly in the future.
Certainly, this is nice to have, but do realize that the main time administration really cares about complaints is when they’ve an axe to grind against a particular faculty member (and “not passing enough students” has forged many an axe). Note that complaints against administration have literally nowhere to go and no required policies for dealing with them.
4.6 Recruitment materials and presentations accurately represent the institution’s practices and policies.
As there is no oversight, it’s difficult to violate this clause; institutions self-report this, after all, although outside of athletics recruiting (and those types of students generally know where they’re going and why), there’s not much that can go wrong here.
4.7 The institution is in compliance with its program responsibilities under…the most recent Higher Education Act as amended.
The Higher Education Act, signed into law in 1965, provides educational resources to educational institutions, and sets guidelines for whom should get federal student loans. The terms of these loans are statutory: there is no risk assessment to them. This Act is re-authorized and modified by Congress approximately every five years.
In 1998, the Gear Up authorization guaranteed financial aid for students who had a high school diploma. And here we have direct evidence for the death of the myths regarding what it means to go to college and be a college student. Anyone with a diploma and no place else to go, can come to college and pick up a check.
4.8 An institution that offers distance or correspondence education documents each of the following…
Broken into three parts, this clause provides special requirements for this type of education.
First, there is some effort made to verify that the student submitting the material is the same as registered for the course (secure login and pass code is primarily how online distance courses do this, and note how trivial it is for a student to simply pass that code off to a ringer if need be). In practice, this is meaningless, as we’ll see later.
There also needs to be a written policy for protecting the privacy of such students (no prescribed penalty for violating such policy).
Finally, there needs to be written notification of any additional costs for taking these types of courses. Most correspondence courses, relics of an older age, are offered at a discount—these courses are not actually taught by a professor, after all, so charging for teaching would be unfair. This differs from the shiny new online courses, that often likewise have no actual teaching…but are just as expensive as traditional courses.
Note that no effort is made here to verify anything educational is going on in these courses.
4.9 The institution has policies…for determining the credit hours awarded for courses…
All institutions follow basically one of a few types of protocols for awarding credit hours for courses (the most common is 1 credit hour for each 50 minutes of class time for most lecture courses, with exceptions for labs and other special courses). This is hardly much of a requirement.
An appendix defines some more terms, but the above is, in brief, all that is required for an institution to acquire accreditation under SACS. Very little of the above has anything at all to do with education, or showing an education is being provided. What little might arguably apply is all self-reported by the institution, SACS never sends representatives into classrooms and sees with their own eyes what’s really going on. SACS never sends people to take the courses and sit in the classrooms to see exactly what the coursework entails. SACS never takes online courses and establishes there is learning and teaching going on there, or that there is no cheating going on in such courses. SACS never takes a look at all the course materials from actual courses and sees with their own eyes what students truly are expected to learn in a course (I’ve heard rumors that they sometimes look at samples). SACS never considers the graduation/grades of students and thus is never in a situation to consider if a school is merely a diploma mill with only the veneer of legitimacy that, at most, does all that is required for accreditation.
Individuals in the following areas receive the highest priority for inclusion in the Registry:
Governance and Administration
Administrative Services (financial resources)
---SACS is always seeking evaluators for their Registry of evaluators, with some types of evaluators in more demand than others. Faculty can become evaluators, but only with the express approval of the administration of their respective institution.
It’s also worth noting that while faculty have various responsibilities and restrictions placed upon them in accreditation, of all the administrators only the chief administrator merits specific mention above. Administrators can apparently do whatever they wish, provided their activities go towards goals of, say higher graduation or retention rates (from 4.1).
The Principles of Accreditation is something of a living document, and is subject to change, albeit incremental. Just a few years ago, administrators needed, as part of accreditation, to have the experience, competence, and capacity to lead the institution, while the current document no longer requires capacity—an odd requirement to drop. Institutions now need “a sufficient number” of qualified staff, instead of in the past where it only needed to be sure the staff were qualified—almost as though accreditation were trying to add to the number of staff at the institution. Institutions also used to have to provide financial profile information on an annual basis, but not now6. There are other, minor, changes, and perhaps it is only imagination that would lead one to believe that, even in the last few years, accreditation requirements seem to be dropping.
Accrediting agencies usually only have a small permanent staff (a few dozen at most), and recruit personnel from administrators at accredited institutions, so perhaps it isn’t such a surprise that administrators have few restrictions via accreditation, or that accredited institutions get nearly a “free ride” when it comes to violating these principles, or that there is at least the appearance of steadily dropping requirements for accreditation.
To be fair, accreditation was never about education, even a century ago. It was a self-regulated process, where faculty at institutions (back then, faculty were the administrators) got together and examined each others’ practices, to learn from each other and reach agreement on best practices. This was an era when “get rich” wasn’t part of education, so there few temptations to not be honest in endeavor. Now, with a trillion dollars of loan money on the table, and with many administrative positions regularly paying $100,000 a year (and much more as you go up the ladder), the time is long past to have accreditation be such a trusting process.
There might not be a lock on the Poor Box in church, when donations are only a few dollars. But if the box has a trillion dollars in it? That’s completely different.
A population seduced by myth into dreaming college is the yellow brick road to a successful, honest life. Mandated guaranteed funds allow the population to follow their dreams at the college of their choice, or nearly so. The legitimacy of these college dreams is certified by accreditation programs. Throughout the entire country, accreditation is considered the gold standard for determining if an institution is legitimate. And it addresses nothing beyond asserting that the administration is determined and capable to do whatever is necessary to get those checks flowing.
Accreditation is as much a slip of paper as a degree from a diploma mill.
Can you get a legitimate education from a non-accredited institution? If they charge for it, probably not. There are many non-accredited “institutions” that will cheerfully sell you a degree, for perhaps 2% of the price of getting a degree from an accredited online institution; considering an unaccredited degree is often worth about as much in the marketplace as an accredited online degree, this might be a bargain and thus less of a fraud, but a degree is still not an education.
Something never said in a college admissions office is how a person can get an education for free if he wants. The public library has nearly every book a person could need for a bachelor’s degree, and the internet has basically all human knowledge available. Even people that don’t like to read books can still learn something from Khan Academy’s 3000 free videos on coursework from basic English to Organic Chemistry (and tens of millions of views says these videos are generally good). University of the People is nearly free and offers coursework and programs comparable to other schools. It’s not difficult to just get a course catalogue from any college, ask for the syllabus, buy the textbook for an exorbitant fee (if the library can’t get it) and learn. Harvard and MIT, among other respectable institutions, provide the content of many of their courses online for free. A self-motivated person has endless opportunities to learn even very advanced topics for free. Such a learner won’t have the benefit of “a degree from an accredited institution”, but in all seriousness that’s neither the point of education nor is accreditation much of a seal of approval.
Self-learning is a hard way to get an education, and what of the remedial student? A student that hasn’t been able to learn much in the first 18 years of life might not have the skills to give himself an education. College student population growth has gone hand in hand with the growth in the number of students that require at least one remedial course when they come to college, so if educational institutions really are interested in education, they should be doing something for remedial students.
Accreditation doesn’t protect the average sucker from getting into deep student debt for nothing. A remedial student, a “below average sucker” if you will, forced to spend at least one additional semester in remedial courses, will of necessity get even deeper into debt. Because of this additional expense and risk, institutions acting with integrity should be taking care to see that treat these particularly vulnerable students properly. Let’s now take a look at remediation, and see if it’s really doing the job of helping these people get an education, or preventing them from unduly hurting themselves.
My niece, after getting her AA at Grossmont College (a community college) in San Diego transferred to UCLA. She said that she learned more at Grossmont College than UCLA where she got her BA. I taught many students at East Los Angles College (a community college) who transferred to USC. They came back and told me the teachers were better and they learned more at ELAC than at USC. Those who transferred to UCLA made comparable comments. I have a friend who got an MSW at USC. She told me that she got it there because of the name even though Cal State Long Beach has a better program. She said that the best teacher she had in the program was a Rabbi. The others weren't all that interesting. It is unfortunate that the American style of education (having a plethora of administrators all being paid way too much) is being exported throughout the world. They obviously don't realize how this will devalue education.ReplyDelete
Wow, just on a whim I decided to review my old post/accreditation, and I see this. It's unusual for a CC to be superior, though I note the problem seems to be USC is pretty bad.Delete