Sunday, November 30, 2014

Report: Accreditation is Foxes Guarding Henhouses

By Professor Doom

     Many, many, times I’ve pointed out that accreditation is a joke and has nothing to do with quality, or even legitimacy, of higher education. I know, most everyone outside of higher education thinks “if the school it’s accredited, it must be legitimate.”

      But, no, accreditation means nothing. I’m hardly the only person to figure out that the great student loan scam could only “work” if accreditation were a fraud. A recent report on accreditation sums up what’s going on in somewhat more polite terms than I tend to use:

     Conflicts of interest, indeed. I’m mentioned before that a big part of the problem of accreditation is accreditors are not drawn from educators, they are, instead, taken from the people that rule over our institutions of higher education, people that have no respect for education. To clarify: the people that determine if our institutions are legitimate are the same people that run those same institutions. Yeah, that’s a conflict of interest, and with over a trillion dollars of student loan money on the line, it’s easy to see why our administrators in higher education sold out quickly, and sold out completely.

     The report hints above at an important issue that I’ve seldom mentioned. What happened to accreditation is little different than what’s happened in quite a few other regulatory bodies. The FDA, for example, has huge conflicts of interests with the pharmaceutical companies it’s supposed to be regulating. Attorney General Eric Holder resigned from his position at attorney general, only to take a $77,000,000 a year job (plus bonuses!) with a bank he refused to prosecute-- before the ink on the resignation was dry! One wonders if the next attorney general will investigate the appearance of conflict there, or simply submit his resume to the same bank for future consideration. 

     So, yeah, it’s pretty common for regulators to be taken over by the ones they’re supposed to regulate. But that doesn’t make it right, and it won’t be fixed if we just pretend it isn’t happening.

     Accreditation is a bit different than others. Accreditors aren’t government supported, they get their money directly from the institutions they’re supposed to be regulating. 

“…Colleges are dues-paying members of accrediting associations that determine their accreditation. Consequently, accreditors are more reluctant to deny accreditation renewal, an action that would result in the loss of dues-paying members of the association. “The desire to maintain collegiality and not to lose paying association members raises conflict of interest issues that make the regional accreditors questionable gatekeepers for eligibility for federal funds.”
--it’s amazing how often when I tried to explain the problem to my supposed colleagues, “collegiality” came up as a reason not to pursue the matter. Administrators have been given a level of respect that, in many cases, is wholly undeserved. Not all, mind you, but enough that giving them the benefit of the doubt for acts that sure look like fraud is pure foolishness.

     Now, accreditation is voluntary, at least in theory, but the student loan scam provides so much money to accredited schools (and only to accredited schools) that a non-accredited school simply can’t compete. The first mission of a non-accredited school is to look legitimate enough to get accreditation, after that, legitimacy is both irrelevant and detrimental to getting those sweet student loan checks. Anyone wishing to maintain legitimacy in an accredited institution risks being forcibly shown the door (as my own eyes, and, alas, my own job history, can attest).

     Accreditation is private, and not government, so it can’t force institutions to join. Private institutions can be legitimate (for example, ETS, which runs much standardized tests, enforces integrity and legitimacy quite well), but it’s long past time to give accreditation the benefit of the doubt about its ability to keep our corrupt institutions of higher education acting legitimately.

     The report details only a few of the many, many, ways that accreditation fails, but I’ll cover the report’s highlights:

Credit for Courses of Dubious Academic Value. In 2010, the University of South Carolina (USC) made headlines for offering a credit-bearing course entitled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.” The objective of the course was to “unravel some of the sociologically relevant dimensions of the fame of Lady Gaga.”[22] Because USC is an accredited institution, any course offered at the school is thereby also accredited.
USC is not alone in offering college credit for courses of questionable academic rigor and value. Indeed, courses such as “The Science of Superheroes,”[23] “Gay and Lesbian Caribbean Literature,”[24] and “Cyberfeminism” are offered at UC Irvine, Syracuse, and Cornell, respectively—all of which are accredited universities.[25] And at Bowdoin College, students can take a “Women’s Studies” course (for credit, of course) that asks: “Is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony a marvel of abstract architecture culminating in a gender-free paean to human solidarity, or does it model the process of rape?”[26]

     Because accreditors don’t do their job (more accurately, “don’t do the job they’re supposed to do”), schools primarily self-report their legitimacy. The “Paper Courses” scandal at UNC is only a tiny shard on a small part of the iceberg of fraud going on in higher education today. There are many colleges where the vast majority of coursework has nothing to do with higher education, above and beyond the highly questionable-sounding courses mentioned above.

     The report continues:

Colleges Insulated from Competition from Higher Education Start-ups. Part of the reason colleges can offer courses of dubious academic rigor or educational value is that the current accreditation process (along with other factors such as easy access to federal student aid) insulates them from the competitive pressures of the market.

     For all its lack of legitimacy once the school is accredited, going through the accreditation process is very time consuming…it takes millions of dollars to pay the ridiculous administrative salaries for the years it takes to get that coveted seal of accreditation. It is a barrier, but as the hugely profitable (and thoroughly scandalous) for-profit higher education scam industry shows, it’s not that much of a barrier.

     No, the problem here isn’t that accreditation is the only problem, it’s also the student loan scam, which the current system of accreditation facilitates.

     So while the report does well to criticize accreditation, it gets a few things wrong; no surprise, since the report isn’t written by any insiders to what’s going on in higher education. I’ll cover some more details that are “off a bit” next time.



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