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Fixing the Schools
Breaking The Higher-Ed Monopoly

Writing in The Federalist, Utah Senator Mike Lee goes to bat for a new bill which would attempt to break the federal monopoly on higher-ed accreditation. As Lee notes, current federal law forbids agencies from accrediting schools that do not grant formal degrees and forbids students at non-accredited schools from receiving federal aid. This effectively pushes students toward four-year residential colleges despite the fact that many would likely be better served by something else, be it a vocational training program or a specialized MOOC that a working person could take over the weekends.

Lee’s bill would circumvent this problem by allowing the states to create their own accreditation bodies in addition to the federal one, which, crucially, would not be limited to degree granting programs. Instead, these could accredit any courses they deem fit be they MOOCs, corporate training courses, or even knowledge certification tests:

Workers whose life circumstances make it impossible to take more than one course at a time – single parents, perhaps, or those working two jobs – could finally be eligible for Title IV funds.

Meanwhile, talented teachers could side-step time-consuming and esoteric “publish or perish” research, and spend their careers in the classroom instead. Groups of professors could form new business models, like medical practices, and offer high-quality higher education for a fraction of the cost of four years at a traditional university. Finally competing on a level playing field, new options like MOOCs could finally find their markets.

Institutions of civil society could play a role, too. Non-profit groups like the U.S. Historical Society, the Sierra Club, or the Mayo Clinic could accredit programs in their respective fields, or even competency-measuring exams for various courses.

If it works as planned, this change would give students a number of alternatives to the traditional college model and give them considerably more choice and control of their education. More importantly, many of these alternative programs could be much cheaper than their traditional counterparts, and could be completed without encouraging students to stay out of the workforce for years. Although we’re reserving judgement on the final bill, Lee’s diagnosis of the problems facing higher-ed is spot-on, and this looks to us like a serious attempt at addressing them.  This is exactly the kind of creative thinking we like to see.

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  • qet

    Some quick thoughts:
    (1) Eliminating “accreditation” entirely would solve many, probably all, of these problems. Why have it? The market will decide which are the better programs and which the worse. Accreditation is just a licensing scheme similar fundamentally to those for opticians and barbers, e.g.
    (1A) Speaking of licensing, licensed vocations should just move to a professional certification regime as suggested in teh 3rd paragraph of the excerpt. A doctor who passes his boards in cardiology ought to be able to practice as a MD without having to have first paid for a 4-year general medical degree. Ditto lawyers and state bar exams. However, it is not certain that such a regime would not simply divert to itself the revenues now going to 4-year residential colleges, rather than reducing or eliminating them.
    (2) Per 1A–Allowing multiple accrediting bodies will simply multiply the opportunities for rent-seeking by state actors and exclusionary rules lobbied for by established institutions.
    (3) The analogy to private medical practice is ironic, seeing that today economic and regulatory forces are busy destroying private medical practices and doctors are more and more “choosing” to become salaried employees (i.e., wage workers) of ever-growing hospital corporations.
    (4) What is preventing professors from forming those new business models right now? University professors don’t want to teach; they want to write books, publish papers, attend conferences and be recognized by their peers as “leading” their respective fields. People who always already wanted to teach don’t go for the university tenure track.

  • Anthony

    Higher Ed continues as one of the more reinforcing purveyors of dominant (class) values. On top of that and underneath senator Lee’s premise to federalize higher ed accreditation, one cannot not avoid what is absent: systemic special interest groups developed around corporate institutions of capitalism – in this instance higher ed – that preclude changing practices (“New School: A Plan for State-Based Accreditation of Alternative Education) beyond tweaking. Decoupling Title IV eligibility and enrollment at degree institutions appears to be integral to senator Lee’s proposed legislation in contradistinction to systemic behavior thus relevance of absent information.

    A need exists: licensing education acquisition differently. Necessarily, licensing infers systemic arrangement and process of selection (power) in order to operate as licensure – what interests, biases, agenda, etc. (if any) motivates proposed legislation. This absent information more than focus on Title IV, and unaccredited teachers (since brilliant minds either as teachers or as scholarly producers will generally not be stifled by posited difficulties) allows for additional context as senator Lee’s legislation is considered.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Monopolies suck, and the Government is the biggest monopoly of them all. Without the “Feedback of Competition” forcing continuous improvements in Quality, Service, and Price, all a monopoly can look forward to is stagnation and decay.

  • TommyTwo

    “More importantly, many of these alternative programs could be much
    cheaper than their traditional counterparts, and could be completed
    without encouraging students to stay out of the workforce for years.”

    Gasp! And raise the unemployment rate?!

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