America’s higher education system works like this. The government dangles lots of easy-to-get money for college in front of every high-school graduate, nearly all of whom have heard repeatedly that a college degree is essential for a decent life. Without “higher education,” their lives will be nothing but low-paid drudgery.
Salvation lies in enrolling in college, but unless the school is accredited, they won’t be to use any of that federal grant and loan money to pay for it. So great numbers of students get their Pell grants, federal loans, and then find a college that promises them a bright future.
The role the accreditors are supposed to play is to guarantee that colleges are educationally sound. Politicians don’t want federal money wasted on degree mills or other dubious schools. Accreditation was thought to be a good defense against that.
Back in the 1960s, when the Great Leap Forward into higher education began, the system seemed reasonable. Most of the students who went to college were pretty well prepared and the admission and academic standards at most schools were at least moderately demanding. Expanding “access” to higher education appeared to have only an upside.
The trouble is that Uncle Sam’s increasing “generosity” towards college proved to be very corrosive of those standards over time.
College administrators quickly developed a taste for the additional revenue they could obtain by enrolling more students. To do that, many lowered admission standards and the academic quality of the college-going population began to decline. (That decline was worsened by the fact that academic rigor at many of our high schools was simultaneously falling, as “progressive” educational theories spread.) But to keep the increasingly large number of weak and disengaged students they were luring into their schools happy, it was necessary to water down the curriculum and lower academic expectations.
After decades, those trends have led us to our present, dismal situation – many students who shouldn’t have entered college in the first place are racking up debts for college while learning little and often failing to graduate.
Instead of acknowledging that college subsidies have produced some bad consequences, President Obama and his (now departing) education secretary Arne Duncan are now pinning the blame on the accreditors for not solving the problems caused by easy money and low standards.
In a November 6, 2015 statement, Secretary Duncan said, “Accrediting organizations are watchdogs that don’t bite.” He announced that the department would request from Congress new power to set standards for the way accreditation agencies measure the schools they evaluate. The idea behind this is that if accreditors force their schools to improve on such metrics as graduation rates, they we will solve or at least ameliorate the problem of “failing schools.”
This is a classic example of rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic – a waste of effort that fails to address the underlying problem. That problem is simple: Colleges can’t educate students who really don’t have much ability or desire to learn.
There are many colleges, both for-profit and non-profit with very low graduation rates. Some are in single-digits. Many of the students who enroll find that college work, even with today’s prevailing low standards and watered down curriculum, just isn’t what they want or need and drop out. School administrators would like to have them remain enrolled and graduate, since that means both more money and a boost in the various ranking systems. They have “retention” programs, which are supposed to stop the dropout hemorrhaging, but despite all their efforts, reality asserts itself. Many students are “mismatched” at any college.
What will happen if the Department of Education could compel accreditation agencies to “get tough” with these “failing schools”?
We will see the kind of system gaming that we have seen in K-12 when schools get the diktat to improve or else. Colleges and the accreditors will fudge or cheat so they will look good enough under the metrics.
If you doubt that, consider how college professors do the same thing when they’re under pressure to “improve.” Since job retention often depends on meeting some benchmark on their student evaluations, they concentrate on that. A perfect illustration of that is found in Peter Sacks’ book Generation X Goes to College; to keep his job, he needed better evaluations and thus engaged in his “sandbox experiment,” of making his class more fun and less demanding. (It worked.)
Similarly, if an accreditor insists on better outcomes, the easiest way for a school to produce them is to further reduce its academic standards and do still more hand-holding so as to encourage students who’d otherwise have dropped out into remaining on campus. Even if the great majority of your students are pitiably weak, you can probably engineer a marginal increase in your graduation rate by a “sandbox experiment” at the whole institution.
To the educrats, any increase in graduation rates will look like progress because they are obsessed with our “educational attainment” level. But the sad truth is that America is already saturated with people with college credentials doing jobs that only call for high school skills or less. (For evidence on that, see this report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.) More people will have spent time and money on college credits of scant intrinsic worth. That’s not progress.
Now, imagine that to save their own skins, accreditors marginally increase the number of schools they de-accredit, throwing to the wolves some of the schools that cater to the weakest students and have the most intractably low outcomes. Those institutions will close, causing the educrats to proclaim that they’re solving the problem. But the students who would have gone to them will just take their federal money to another marginal school, thereby making it harder for it to meet the accrediting standards. Nothing really changes.
Accreditation changes are the wrong medicine for what ails higher education in the U.S. We can only hope that Congress will ignore the Education Department’s plea for more power over the system. True, accreditation does a lousy job of ensuring academic quality, but low quality and poor outcomes are inevitable given Washington’s “college for all” penchant.