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.