Most of the Presidential candidates, particularly the Democrats, have pledged to do something about the high price of higher education. But while they’re busy campaigning, the DC higher education lobby is working behind the scenes on Capitol Hill to sabotage efforts to make higher education more transparent, accountable, and ultimately affordable.
This begins with the recent initiative by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to provide parents and students with more information about how well individual colleges and universities educate their students. Part of this push has focused on accreditation, a voluntary, non-governmental process by which higher education essentially polices itself through periodic inspection and peer review by non-profit accrediting organizations. Accreditation is intricately tied to federal policy, because the feds only allow students to use Pell grants and federal student loans at accredited colleges. In order to ensure that the process has integrity (stay with me here) the U.S. Department of Education periodically reviews and re-certifies the accrediting organizations themselves. In other words, it accredits the accreditors.
Accreditation can have a lot of value in providing colleges with candid feedback, and it’s done a good job of building a floor in terms of quality and financial integrity. If you pay your tuition to an accredited college, it’s very unlikely they’ll steal your money or hand you a worthless diploma. But accreditation does a terrible job of creating or providing any kind of public, comparable information about institution-level academic quality. The process simply isn’t designed for this, which is why colleges never lose accreditation because they don’t do a good enough job teaching their students. In the end, the academic quality component of accreditation often amounts to this:
Accreditor: Given your academic mission and student population, are you doing a good job educating your students?
Accreditor: Are you sure?
Accreditor: Okay then!
This is one reason that less than half of all recent colleges graduates scored as “proficient” on a test of literacy.
Since accreditation is one of the few federal leverage points on issues of learning (as opposed to research or financial aid) in higher education, Sec. Spellings has used it to push for more public information about academic quality. The institutions and accreditors have pushed back–hard. This all came to a head last month, when the federal panel that accredits the accreditors met to review the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), which has been around since 1885 and accredits most of the Ivy League.
In past years, reapproval of NEASC has been basically a formality. But this year, the panel had a new member, Anne Neal, president of the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). As reported in InsideHigherEd, Neal proceeded to ask NEASC a series of discomforting questions that boiled down to “Do you have any standards or objective criteria for deciding if the institutions you accredit are actually teaching well? Do they? If you don’t and they don’t, how do you actually know?”
To which NEASC replied, in so many words: “No; no; we know it when we see it.” And of course, they always see it.
At this point various parties involved started to challenge the entire premise of Neal’s line of questioning, saying that it was beyond the purview of the panel to even ask whether accreditors have any kind of transparent process for assessing academic quality that could conceivably produce an answer other than “good enough.” Behind the scenes, people started to say that if this kind of talk kept up, they would take the matter directly to Congress, which was (and is) in the middle of reauthorizing the massive federal Higher Education Act (HEA).
Now it appears that’s exactly what happened. The talk around town is that the influential higher education lobby (described in this essential Washington Monthly piece from Politico’s Ben Adler) has lined up substantial support behind an HEA provision that would short-circuit the Department of Education’s entire effort, preventing it from requiring accreditors to require colleges to provide information about whether they’re actually teaching their students well. The bill currently in the House says, in section 496:
“Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit the Secretary to establish any criteria that specifies, defines, or prescribes the standards that accrediting agencies or associations shall use to assess any institution’s success with respect to student achievement.”
In other words: While the federal government spends tens of billions of dollars a year supporting higher education, directly and indirectly through grants, loans, tax preferences, etc., it shall be legally required to take higher education’s word for it that all that money is being spent well on behalf of students, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.
Keep in mind, this is not No Child Left Behind for higher education. Nobody is proposing that anyone other than the accreditors or the institutions themselves set standards for academic quality. They’re just proposing that there ought to be standards or information of some kind that regular people and prospective students can actually understand, and that colleges should explain why they have or haven’t met them.
What does this have to do with affordability? Simple: America’s intractable college cost problem is actually in large part an information deficit problem. Because there’s no real, comparable information about how well different colleges teach or how much their students learn, price and quality have become synonymous in the higher education market. Institutions accumulate prestige by spending their way up the rankings ladder, raising tuition and exclusivity along the way. The lack of data about quality (along with high barriers to entry) keeps competitors at bay. As long as this remains the case, no amount of additional Pell grants or reduced interest rates will be able to keep up with spiraling costs.
The Democratic nominee for president will either be Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, both of whom sit on the Senate HELP committee. That means that in the not-so-distant future, a Senator who may very well be the next President of the United States could be faced with having to vote up or down on a bill that will hamstring the ability of their administration to seriously tackle both the problem of inconsistent academic quality in higher education and out-of-control increases in cost.
Hopefully, someone will step in on behalf of students, taxpayers, and the public interest. But if the higher education lobby’s history of short-circuiting needed reforms is any indication, the narrow self-interest of entrenched institutions may prevail once again.