The federal government’s rigid hold over college accreditation—and its built-in bias toward “time served” credentialism—is one of the major obstacles standing between our current bloated, unaffordable higher education system and something leaner and more widely accessible. Over at RealClearScience, the physicist Tom Hartsfield describes a promising framework for replacing the competition-squelching system we have with something more suited to students’ needs and employers’ demands, especially for STEM jobs:
Instead of restricting the teaching of accredited courses to colleges, why not let individual instructors gain accreditation for particular courses?The philosophy is simple. The most important qualification for a job is qualification itself, not the calligraphed paper that represents it.If a job requires some knowledge of biology, it often demands a degree in the subject. Why not, instead, ask for just the particular set of biological knowledge germane to the task?One applicant to a job opening could present an entire preciously expensive degree showing their breadth of knowledge. Individual accreditation would allow a second applicant to instead present a smaller, leaner, more targeted package of professionally certified skills to compete with the first at a much lower cost.
The fact that college tuition is rising at more than twice the rate of inflation even as the average wages of college graduates stagnate reflects the failure of the existing higher education system to deliver skills and knowledge efficiently. Hartsfield’s proposal—circumventing the higher education cartel entirely and accrediting individual experts to teach specific skills—would make learning more targeted to students’ practical needs, and much, much cheaper.The four-year brick-and-mortar college, complete with its special amenities and general education curriculum, would and should still exist under a reformed accreditation system. Hartsfield’s proposal would merely lead to the proliferation of more low-cost alternatives for students who want them, restrain tuition hikes at the four-year schools, and perhaps sink some of most poorly-performing institutions. This agenda will naturally be resisted tooth and nail by America’s massive and well-funded higher education establishment. But it is the best path forward for students and for our economy at large.