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Higher Ed Shake Up
College Accreditation Isn’t Working

The federal college accreditation process isn’t exactly a policy area that gets many peoples’ blood boiling, but it is critically important part of the regulatory architecture that determines whether America’s higher education system is nimble and affordable or stagnant and costly. And right now, as the Manhattan Institute’s Preston Cooper writes, the system is a mess:

To gain access to taxpayer-funded student aid, all colleges (for-profit, non-profit and public) must gain accreditation from one of several bodies. However, accreditors seldom take action against schools with poor outcomes—just 0.8% of all colleges had their accreditation terminated over a five-year period. To make matters worse, the Department of Education is inept at responding to accreditor sanctions; over one-third do not elicit any reaction from the Department at all.

Any reasonable look at the data will tell you that college accreditors are not doing their jobs. Accreditors place very little emphasis on student outcomes at colleges; one analysis by the Government Accountability Office found that among for-profit colleges, schools in the top quartile of student outcomes were 30% more likely to receive an accreditor sanction than schools in the bottom quartile.

The solution, as Cooper suggests, and as we’ve written before, is to break the federal monopoly on accreditation. States, localities, corporations, and nonprofits should be allowed to set up rival accreditation bodies that can approve individual courses. A more market-oriented system would increase student flexibility, make more room for innovative new programs, and drive down costs by imposing greater competition.

This more relaxed regulatory environment should be accompanied by a requirement that colleges have skin in the game: that is, if their students are unable to pay back their loans, the institutions should lose money. This would protect borrowers, align colleges’ interests with those of their students, and ultimately represent an important step toward making higher education—and the promise of upward mobility that it brings—within reach for more middle class Americans.

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  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    I have been saying for some time that accreditation should be done by the Credit agencies where employers can check transcripts, and degrees should be awarded based on credit hours and classes completed not by educational institutions.

  • Greg Olsen

    I am generally sympathetic to market-oriented reforms, but the the idea of creating multiple competing accrediting is a bad idea. Accreditation is a public good. It is is supposed to prevent the formation of degree mills. A market system would not work, because who pays are the institutions being accredited and there would be a race to the bottom on standards and little transparency on process and ratings.

    Instead, what is needed is merely a reform of the existing system that: (1) decreases the existing burden of compliance with accreditation reviews and thus reducing the money spent by institutions on accreditation and increases the money spent on the education mission; and (2) increases accountability according to educational outcome, not merely a review of infrastructure (how many books in the library, etc.).

    • Accreditation isn’t a public good, but it is a necessary regulation on the expenditure of public monies. If you could find a way to get rid of the public monies, the market would happily police itself.

      Of course, you can’t get rid of the feds’ money, so we’ll have to wait for a much bigger set of disruptions to knock the whole house of cards down so we can start over.

  • GS

    If college education is defined as mastering information and the cognitive skills for working with it at the level beyond that attainable by the majority of population [Ch. Murray’s definition, quoting from memory], then by definition, it is not for everyone, but only for a sliver on the right shoulder of the Bell Curve. And how the others are failed – be it as college washouts, or otherwise – matters not. However, it makes eminent sense to minimize the waste involved in failing them.

  • ljgude

    I think that we have to go around the schools and the government and create something not called accreditation for on line education to give employer recognition to web based operations like and which teach real skills – and build an alternate system from there. We have already to an extent with the certificate system which companies like Microsoft have established like the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert) and it already supports many recognized qualifications in the computer area. It can be extended to technical subjects immediately and other areas later. There is a great lack of good technical education in the US, unlike in Germany where Bismarck looked at the English industrial revolution and mandated educating double the number of technicians that England produced. My great grandfather got such an education in Prussia in the 19th century and was able to find good technical employment in both England and US all his working life. Bismarck’s plan worked and we still see the results in German technology. Closer to home, I know a young man in California who is an outstanding Diesel mechanic. Mercedes thought so too and approached his with an offer of $100K a year to go to their Diesel school that they had to set up at their own expense in the US followed by a an offer of a handsome six figure salary on successful completion. A top Diesel mechanic is actually worth what a good executive is worth but we in the US don’t know that. Instead we are wasting our money on a single educational model – the Lake Woebegone Model where all the children are above average. Commenter GS’s Bell Shaped Curve in an earlier post says it all – we are educating for the top 10% of the population and creating a generation of debtors lucky to be baristas. I say disintermediate the redundant Bricks and Mortar universities with Web based education and let the fittest Universities that still have value to offer the 10% survive. Of course being a retired academic I, like Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal, have no skin in the game. 😉

    • “Skin in the game” is always going to be an unfortunate metaphor when referring to “a Modest Proposal”…

      What you’re saying is fine as long as no public money is involved. Unfortunately, as usual, the public money has metastasized through the entire system to the point where education looks more and more like a monopsony, with the customer being the government and the students placing a distant second. That requires well-defined accreditation, or scamming people out of their federally-subsized student loans, Pell grants, and GI Bill credits will run away with most of the money, leaving the public to hold the bag.

      The only way out now is for the kind of ad hoc accreditors that you’re describing to find ways to make the education they’re relying on so cheap that it’s affordable even in the face of the market distortions introduced by the feds. That’s doable, but it requires a certain amount of charity on the part of the course designers and a much narrower educational scope than you’d get at a traditional 2- or 4-year college.

      Of course, if the feds would merely obey the First Rule of Holes, that would help.

      • ljgude

        Oh I think that is a most fortunate and apt metaphor, infants used as fodder have skin too. Hence the 😉 Yes, I agree the gumment could ruin any new web based system that rises from the ashes of the traditional schools. But they are not the only well intentioned transgressors of the First Rule of Holes. The Church did a good job in its day and corporate bureaucracies break the rule too. It is up to the users – the employers – to decide whether a particular Cert has value to them. So perhaps no accreditation is required or desired. That said I think the idea of making the education so cheap that even the worst efforts of governmental busybodies and others can’t stop people skilling up. I just spent a year researching a fairly obscure topic – Gnosticism – using the Web and lots of Kindle books. I can tell you this as an old man – watch out for determined auto-didacts. There are 7.4 billion people out there and sooner or later the ones with Newton or Shakespeare class talent are going to turn up. I almost said ‘out of the woodwork’ but that would have been unfortunate. ;-0

  • Anthony
  • f1b0nacc1

    Of course the de facto accreditor these days is US News and World Report, and their infamous ranking system

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