Missing the Mark in Higher Education

(Editor’s Note: Jeff A. Martineau is director of higher education accreditation at the Academy for Liberal Education in Washington, DC. Further information about the subject of this column can be found here.)

The old saying, “be careful what you wish for,” is especially apt when it comes to public policy, whose consequences seldom reflect intentions. Unfortunately, the U. S. Department of Education may be about to prove this adage true once again.

For several years now conservatives have pointed out – and even proven with surveys and studies – numerous ills of higher education: it has allowed popular culture to replace serious academic content and has positively reveled in reducing objectivity and open mindedness while promoting political prejudice and indoctrination. At the same time, business has increasingly complained about problems of cost, access, and accountability in higher education. The intransigence of faculty makes it difficult to suggest viable solutions to the first and most serious problem, so reform efforts have turned to the latter.

In a misguided effort to address some of these concerns, the U.S. Department of Education has decided to withdraw recognition from the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE). Withdrawal of AALE’s status as a recognized accrediting organization would mean that the schools it currently accredits would have to seek accreditation from one of the recognized accrediting organizations or else lose their eligibility to receive federal financial aid. AALE accredits not only American colleges and programs but also K-12 charter schools and, increasingly, schools abroad. One of its institutions in Singapore, for example, has been officially designated the model for establishing more liberal arts colleges there, while a member in Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, is providing leadership to those seeking to transform the old Soviet educational system into American-style liberal education. AALE has become the world leader in encouraging the creation of academically sound liberal arts programs.

What does Secretary Spellings wish to promote at the cost of de-recognizing AALE? Her basic thread is that colleges should generate data on the success of their graduates, and that this data should be comparable across institutions so that prospective students and parents can know what they are paying for. This information will “show us what we are getting for our money.” That’s fine and well when job preparation is the principal aim of the college or university. But this is not a purpose, or at least not a primary purpose, of all colleges, especially those whose mission is to educate students in the liberal arts and sciences and to provide the traditional training for civic and business leadership.

Liberal arts colleges attempt to establish a foundation within their students that will allow them to develop all aspects of the human mind and spirit, thus preparing them not only for life, but for a good life. (Remarkably, colleges steeped in this traditional approach are often the most successful in producing leaders in both the private and public spheres.) The secretary’s agenda threatens this distinctly American approach to success by forcing the standardization of learning “outputs” on the whole of higher education, including the uniquely un-standardized form of learning called liberal education. Her agenda requires focusing on what can be easily measured and compared. The secretary seems to imply that if it cannot be measured, it must not be of value to the student or consumer.

Accreditation uses a form of peer review to assess the quality of an institution. Experts from comparable colleges inspect all aspects of the institution, from administration to student work, and, based on their findings, offer an opinion on whether it meets the accreditor’s standards. In the case of AALE, the primary focus is on assessing the quality of student learning. This system of peer review, which relies heavily on collective experience and professional judgment, is at the heart of the accreditation process. Although accreditation can be justly criticized, we should not forget that this quality control mechanism has been part and parcel of the most highly regarded and sought-after collegiate system in the world.

Unfortunately, it is this very aspect of accreditation that is now under attack by the U.S. Department of Education. Expert judgment is seen as too subjective, and is faulted for not concretely addressing whether the college is doing is good enough? In the case of vocational education, that question is answered almost exclusively through quantitative measurements, licensing exams and professional certifications. But producing court reporters, or even nurses or dentists, is not the same as producing well- rounded and thoughtful citizens, “lifelong learners,” or free and well-stocked minds. Prudence, judgment, and discernment are not facts and cannot be treated as facts. Evaluating them requires bringing to the table the same sort of judgment that liberal education seeks to produce.

Ironically, the poster child for replacing the evaluative system of judgment and expertise with quantitative measurements has become the American Academy for Liberal Education, which happens to be the only accrediting agency that has undergraduate criteria based on academic quality.

Calculating how well “benchmarks” are being met now threatens to displace peer review as the fundamental means of assessing academic quality. Benchmarks require little if any interpretation or judgment. Either the data are above or below the cutoff point.

In AALE’s view, quantitative indicators do not offer much insight into the quality of a liberal education. Nevertheless, in its zeal to replace peer review with quantitative up or down indicators, the department has indicated that it might cease to recognize AALE as an accreditor by this summer, and limit its ability to take in new members until it adopts more “objective” evaluation methods.

Many believe that the attack on AALE is primarily a means to other ends, the most important of which is to “send a message” to the powerful regional agencies about how serious the secretary is about this. This, they say, is why AALE is being singled out for lacking benchmarks, even though no other accreditor of undergraduate colleges has them.

The great irony is that few, if any, of the substantive concerns of conservatives will be addressed by the substitution of “outcomes” for judgment. Replacing qualitative measurements of academic excellence with quantitative ones will, in fact make it even more difficult to engage higher education in a long overdue national discussion of what educated graduates should know beyond the requirements of their careers. It will do nothing to revive the idea that there is an educational “core” or help in curbing intellectual bias or hiring practices. None of these affect the “outcomes” upon which the institution will be judged.

If this new scheme goes forward, we will, no doubt, be provided with lots and lots of data. One might ask, however, whether this will provide sufficient recompense for the loss of the one accrediting organization that promotes the traditional view of higher education? Is the secretary’s devotion to quantitative results so critical that accreditation based on judgment and subjective evaluation must go by the boards? Many of AALE’s supporters do not think so and hope yet to persuade the Department of Education that its approach is beneficial and legitimate.