Breaking the Barriers to Entry

At long last, the Heritage Foundation is writing about higher education. Deeply committed to promoting school choice at the K-12 level, the august conservative organization has mostly avoided attention to colleges and universities until now. Yet higher education is becoming a major drain on the public purse and is misleading college students into thinking that a diploma per se is a ticket to success. 

So it’s good that Lindsey Burke and Stuart Butler have weighed in with a new paper called “Accreditation: Removing the Barrier to Higher Education Reform.” And, even if their views on accreditation are unrealistic, the paper provokes solid thinking about how higher education can and should change.

Not surprisingly for people who are just turning their attention to higher education, Butler and Burke were so stunned by the system of accreditation they made it their major subject. I, too, latched onto that topic in 2007 when I first joined the Pope Center; it was the subject of one of my first major articles (published in Inside Higher Ed). I was already years behind my colleague George Leef, who co-wrote a paper on accreditation for the American Council for Trustees and Alumni in 2002.

The fascination with higher ed accreditation stems from the fact that the system is a classic cartel, and long-lasting cartels are rare in a free society. Six regional organizations determine whether the colleges in their region are qualified to teach students. Once a school is accredited, it becomes part of the organization and then has a role in approving its sister schools  (a little like those characters in the Night of the Living Dead).

Economists view cartels as harmful because institutions (usually firms) use them to keep prices up by blocking innovations and keeping out upstarts. But cartels are usually short-lived; without government control of a cartel, new institutions can enter, and those in the group have an incentive to innovate to gain more customers, even when doing so breaks the cartel’s rules. Prices then fall and new ideas take hold.

Governments, however, keep cartels going. In the case of higher education, the federal government uses the accreditors as gatekeepers for the billions of dollars in federal student grants and loans. These federal funds are increasingly important to colleges and universities and thus accreditation is something of a sacred cow. It is possible for some schools to get what is called national accreditation, such as approval by the Distance Education Training Council (DETC). But that is not what the “traditional” schools get and thus it does not bestow much prestige. Regional accreditation is much preferred because it rests on the twin pillars of reputation and money.

Butler and Burke are rightly shocked at the waste in this system. Not only does it inhibit innovation, it wastes time and money. You don’t have to spend much time in the field of higher education to learn about the assistant professor who is assigned for a year to the job of satisfying inane requirements or the flurry of anxiety that comes over a campus when the visiting team arrives on campus or the inordinate amount of time spent in writing, editing, and rewriting the obligatory reports. Accreditation has “morphed into a powerful and rigid system whereby a few large regional and national accrediting agencies have a tremendous amount of power over higher education,” write Burke and Butler. 

The authors don’t stop with horror at accreditation, however, and half their paper is devoted to describing the changing landscape of higher ed. To their credit, they see that the accreditation system may be becoming less relevant in a world with a growing number of providers of online education available free or at low cost.

Nevertheless, they end their paper with a plea for changes in accreditation—such as decoupling aid and accreditation so that accreditors are no longer gatekeepers for federal funds. (I’m not sure that this is realistic, since it might force the government to create a vast new bureaucracy to judge which schools are “diploma mills” and which are not.)

Rather than endorse that position, which George Leef recommended ten years ago, let me take the 30,000-foot view and address how an economic system like higher education actually might become free of governmental strangleholds. 

In my opinion, there are two ways. One is exemplified by the history of transportation in this country, the other by the Internet.

Railroads were engines of growth in the 19th century—but in 1887 they began to be regulated by the federal government through the Interstate Commerce Commission. Shippers initiated the regulation, but the railroads gradually won rules that benefited themselves, making them complacent and resistant to innovation. Meanwhile, outside the ICC, the highway system and automotive technology improved, so that trucks could offer lower prices and greater convenience. But they too were brought under the umbrella of the ICC in 1935.

By the 1970s, the high costs and inefficiencies were a favorite topic for economists. “Lost” rail cars (regulations made it too expensive to send them back) and deadheading (trucks could carry only specified products on the return trip) were among those signs. Eventually, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats eliminated the ICC (along with the Civil Aeronautics Bureau, which was doing to the airlines what the ICC had done to land transport).

So one possibility for change is that universities’ high costs and inefficiencies—along with case histories of graduates with no jobs—will lead to a political coalition that will remove the straitjacket of accreditation.

But there may be another way. The Internet, the most important technological development of our generation, grew up outside the regulatory communication apparatus that was led by A T& T and the U. S. Postal Service. Email was invented by a private firm, and one upstart after another, such as Yahoo, Google, Apple, and Facebook, created a vast new economic system that is only now coming under regulatory controls.

Could something like that happen in higher education, too? Could a new system of education simply grow up outside the walls of the academy? Burke and Butler list the many entities that are pioneering non-traditional methods of education such as Udacity, Udemy, and Straighterline. Even more important, perhaps, they point out the development of alternative methods of credentialing—ways to show potential employers one’s accomplishments, such as “badges” and industrial certifications (which already exist to a surprising extent). If those credentials turn out to serve businesses well, they could, Burke and Butler observe, “change the very concept of ‘college’ or ‘university.’” As Anya Kamenetz wrote in her book DIY U, people can build their own personal education out of a growing number of sources.

One kind of education has already gone a long way down that road—homeschooling. Surely, homeschooling in the United States is one of the most unlikely educational developments one could have imagined thirty years ago. Public schooling is a monopoly that everyone must pay for, and today’s culture—in which two incomes are the norm for married couples—would seem to militate against having one parent stay at home to teach. Yet as many as 2.5 million students may be learning at home. Their families have simply exited the public school system, even while they are forced to pay for it.

If the new teaching technology and the new credentialing techniques that Burke and Butler outline help young people begin good careers, perhaps a large number of would-be students will simply opt out of college, the way that homeschooling families have done. And if they do, all the accreditation in the world will not get them back.

So, even if nothing good comes from the latest call for changes to accreditation, that doesn’t mean that higher education will remain static. That is the real message of the “Accreditation” paper: One can despair about accreditation but still be enthusiastic about the future of learning.