A story in the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly about the demise last year, after its accreditation was pulled, of the financially and academically troubled Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., hit close to home. My home, actually, because I live just four blocks away from Southeastern’s decrepit single-building campus in Washington’s sleepy Southwest quadrant adjacent to the Potomac waterfront. A university calling itself “Southeastern” that’s really in Southwest Washington? That’s part’s of the mystery of Southeastern, founded in 1879 by the YMCA as a night school for working adults but somehow self-transformed into a “university” worthy of membership in the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the same organization whose Commission on Higher Education accredits Princeton and Johns Hopkins. Middle States had granted accreditation to Southeastern in 1977, and the university hung on for 32 years, until Middle States pulled the plug in March 2009, effectively killing the school.
But here is the most mysterious thing about Southeastern, as far as I’m concerned: During the seven years that I’d lived in Southwest Washington before the university shut its doors after a final summer session in 2009, I never saw a single student—or a single human being of any kind—enter or exit its campus. This was strange, because I walked by that campus several times a week at different hours of the day, on my way to my bank’s ATM machine or to the post office or a nearby Starbucks. Southeastern’s haphazardly landscaped Brutalist-period headquarters (nearly all of Southwest was torn down and then rebuilt in a disastrous 1950s experiment with urban renewal) that purported to house a bustling academic community was always as eerie as a ghost town, the little concrete plaza in front of its plate-glass doors empty, its none-too-clean windows blanks.
I knew that Southeastern remained in business mostly because it advertised profligately on Metro subway trains and in Metro stations: large posters featuring photos of happy cap-and-gown-wearing students plus assurances that you could go to Southeastern practically for free (at least until those loan repayments kicked in), thanks to the generous federal aid that accreditation from Middle States assured.
The Washington Monthly article, by Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector, a Washington think tank, chronicles the history of scandals and academic deterioration that began at Southeastern within a few years of its gaining accreditation. In two separate scandals administrators were fired for diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars of university funds to companies controlled by themselves. Add to that Southeastern’s astoundingly high default rates on student loans, ballooning to 42 percent at one point, the dismal academic performance of its students, who could not pass licensing tests for the professions for which they trained, repeated periods of probation imposed by Middle States along with stern warning letters; a free-fall in enrollment from 1,800 students during the 1980s to about 800 in the spring of 2009 (most of whom were apparently enrolled online, which is why I never saw them), and multimillion-dollar fines from the Education Department for improperly using and accounting for aid money. Then there was Southeastern’s terminally deteriorating financial situation. U.S. News, in its most recent report on Southeastern, listed the university’s endowment as $0, and Middle States noted in its letter of termination that Southeastern was spending more on fundraising than it was receiving in donations.
Carey’s article makes two interesting points. One is the corrupting influence of federal money on higher education. For its first, unaccredited, 98 years of existence, Southeastern’s goals were modest, in keeping with the YMCA’s charitable mission: vocational courses in accounting, business, and other subjects focused on white-collar employment skills. At one point Southeastern even operated a law school, from which its most famous alumnus, Hervey Gilbert Machen, a two-term congressman from Maryland, graduated. For almost a century Southeastern, although obviously no academic powerhouse, offered an educational model that worked.
Then along came the 1960s and 1970s, during which the federal government got into the business of subsidizing post-secondary education on a massive scale via loan programs and Pell grants for students. In order to qualify for the government aid, students must attend a school accredited by a regional or national accrediting organization—and so Southeastern, like hundreds of other former vocational and trade schools around the country (some of them nonprofit like Southeastern, many others not), scrambled to turn itself into a “real” university in order to win the coveted accreditation and tap into the spigot of aid dollars that accreditation promised. That was when Southeastern’s troubles began. In the old days the discipline of the market would have forced a lousy school that cheated its students to close its doors in short order. Under the current system, in which taxpayers, not students, underwrite much of the cost of post-secondary education, such schools can limp along for decades on the government dole as long as they remain accredited, often wreaking financial havoc on the hapless young people who sign up for their useless courses and attendant debt loads.
The second point that Carey makes is that Middle States is that Middle States held off terminating Southeastern’s accreditation for decades as the scandals piled up because Southeastern had a large minority-group enrollment. Middle States’s termination letter read: “Ever since Southeastern University’s initial accreditation…in 1977, the Commission has recognized the University’s mission of serving diverse and underserved student populations. It is largely as a consequence of this recognition that the Commission has been so forbearing in its actions to date.” In other words, Middle States deliberately lowered its accrediting standards for Southeastern—and let the school continue collecting taxpayer dollars for shoddy programs—because many of Southeastern’s students were low-income blacks.
As Carey points out, this amounted to cheating a financially vulnerable minority population that needs focused, effective post-secondary education the most. Carey argues that the problem lies with the Education Department’s delegation to Middle States and other private membership organizations the responsibility for assessing the quality of the institutions that are eligible for federal tuition aid. For example, all the regionals, including Middle States, allow colleges to define their own academic goals and then assess the schools in terms of the extent to which their programs meet those goals. Carey would replace that peer-review system with the creation of a new government regulatory agency along the lines of the Securities and Exchange Commission that would inspect colleges, audit records, develop uniform student learning measures, and have the power to cut off federal subsidies quickly for institutions that fail to deliver high graduation rates and quality courses.
This solution sounds tempting—and Carey is certainly correct in faulting Middle States for its dilatoriness in de-accrediting Southeastern—but it is also problematic, and not just because it would create yet more big government to be paid for with tax dollars. As a government body, Carey’s new agency would inevitably be subject to the same political impulses and misplaced high-mindedness that prompted Middle States to cut slack for Southeastern because many of its students belonged to minority groups. Affirmative action-style double standards would quickly fall into place if it turned out that too many institutions serving minority students—such as, say, third-tier public colleges with chronically low graduation rates—were denied federal aid. Other political considerations would also come into play. During the 1980s there was pressure on the regionals to revoke the accreditation of colleges operated by religious denominations that deem homosexuality to be sinful or forbid women clergy. The regions admirably resisted that temptation. The very fact that the regionals permit their participating institutions to define their own goals and missions allows small religious colleges to thrive alongside Princeton—because not every institution can be a Princeton.
The real problem isn’t so much the accrediting bodies so much as the fact that we have allowed federal student aid to become the chief financial underwriter of higher education. This faucet of federal funding has led to all sorts of perverse results: jacked-up tuitions, bloated administrations, grandiose campus building projects—and gross failures such as Southeastern. Because federal aid is now the lifeblood of universities, accreditation is now a death sentence, but a drawn-out and inefficient one because of the way in which accrediting agencies operate. Wouldn’t it have better if Southeastern had to stand or fall on the willingness of its students to spend their own money on its courses, the way they did for a century before the federal government got into the picture?