You’re Wrong About Ashford, Andrew

I
agree with Andrew Gillen that a large segment of entrenched academia
reflexively opposes for-profit colleges and online education. These people
don’t even like the MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) started by MIT and
Harvard! That said, I don’t see any evidence that the WASC acted unfairly when
it refused accreditation to Ashford University’s massive, 90,000-student online
component. 

Andrew
argues that there was a built-in “conflict of interest” because 20
out of the 26 members of the accreditation committee were “affiliated with
another university”–that is, that they were current or former university
professors and administrators. What were they supposed to have been, plumbers?
Many universities, large and small, public and private, for-profit and
nonprofit, are experimenting with online course offerings. The well-respected
Western Governors University, fully accredited by the Northwest Commission on
Colleges and Universities, is all-online. Indeed, a Western Governors administrator
served on the WASC commission, along with the former president of the
for-profit Capella University. There is no evidence that the WASC has any
interest in limiting the competition by refusing membership to any qualified
institution.

Andrew
also argues that there was “selective enforcement”–because Ashford’s
abysmally low six-year graduation rate (34 percent) is about the same as that
of several WASC-accredited universities such as the University of Hawaii at
Hilo. But there is something qualitatively different between a low graduation
rate (Hilo) and a low graduation rate plus a sky-high early dropout rate
(Ashford). The commission found that over the past five years Ashford enrolled
some 241,000 students, of whom 128,000–more than 50 percent–left within a few
months. Given that Ashford, like many for-profits, derives nearly all its
revenue from federal student loans and grants, the huge washout numbers suggest,
at worst, churning for tuition dollars, and, at best, the reckless admission of
hopelessly unprepared students who then receive little institutional support to
get them past their academic deficiencies.

Andrew
complains that the WASC inappropriately used input, process, and governance as
proxies for what it should have been measuring: what Ashford students are
learning. This is a fair enough criticism. But at least some of those proxies
aren’t so meaningless. One of them was: “an effective system for assessing
and monitoring student learning and assuring academic rigor.” You can’t
measure something without having a yardstick. Here is an excerpt from the
Inside Higher Ed story reporting on the commission’s findings:

As for academics, Ashford had
conducted systematic reviews of only six of its 80 academic programs. And the
commission found that the university had not thoroughly assessed the quality of
its online course offerings. As a result, the commission said it had “serious
concerns about the rigor of coursework, which varied from course to course and
was not always at the appropriate level.”


Course content isn’t a bad proxy for student learning either. For
example, if you’re a Latin teacher and you cover only three out of the five
declensions and skip the subjunctive, chances are good that your students won’t
have learned much. Ashford was trying to teach 90,000 students, many of whom
weren’t ready for college, with just 56 full-time faculty members plus 2,458
part-timers. Contrast that to Ashford’s 2,305 employees working in
“enrollment services.” Talk about a top-heavy administration!


Finally, Andrew contends that accreditation is a “barrier to
entry,” which is “bad.” Fair enough. Udacity, the for-profit
MOOC recently started by former Stanford computer-science professor Sebastian
Thrun, isn’t accredited, either. It has a sky-high dropout rate, but then
again, its courses are free, and it plans to charge a modest tuition at most.
It will never need to depend on the student loans that are the staff of life
for much of the for-profit industry and that make accreditation crucial to
their existence. Finally, “student learning” is exactly how Udacity
intends to be measured: by the quality of its courses and the grades that its
students receive. Ashford could, if it wished, go the route of Udacity.
Alternatively, it will have to do something about satisfying an accreditation
commission. 

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.