America’s national obsession with raising our “educational attainment” level leads politicians and bureaucrats to focus on the silliest of things. Lately, that has been college accreditation.
On November 6, the U.S. Department of Education put out a press release declaring “a sense of urgency about the need for significant improvement in both the rigor and flexibility of accreditation.”
“Accreditation” and “urgency” are words that may have never before appeared in the same sentence. Aside from a few federal bureaucrats and the people who work in the accrediting agencies themselves, almost no one gives any thought to college accreditation. Oh yes—college officials sometimes think about it (with revulsion), but only when they’re due for their “reaccreditation visit” every decade.
The reason why the Obama administration regards it as urgent to change our accreditation system is that the U.S. is falling far short of the president’s stated goal of becoming the nation with the highest percentage of citizens holding college degrees by 2020—60 percent.
But instead of a rapid increase in college degree “production,” the numbers have actually declined slightly. That is why we’re now seeing intense scrutiny of schools with poor graduation rates—schools that are said to be “failing their students.” The Department of Education intends to pressure those institutions to improve their student outcomes.
One element of that is already in place, namely the “Gainful Employment” regulations that will mean the loss of federal student aid funds for schools that don’t do well enough on measurements of their graduation rates, student debt, and earnings. (For a critical analysis of that, read Marc Jerome’s recent article.) The Gainful Employment regulations only apply to for-profit colleges, however and the Department of Education wants an across-the-board offensive against what it sees as “poorly performing” schools.
That is where accreditation comes in, since every postsecondary educational institution must have accreditation from a federally approved agency if it wants to accept the government’s student aid money. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan complains that “Accrediting organizations are watchdogs that don’t bite” and wants to make them more effective.
Toward that end, he advocates greater transparency, such as “inform(ing) the public about the bases for all final accreditation decisions.” Writing up those decisions will keep a few people busy, but the number of Americans who are interested in reading them is probably in single digits.
Far more significant is the Department’s heightened attention to student outcomes. Duncan wants accreditors to “bite” schools with poor ones. The one outcome that is most easily measured is a school’s graduation rate, and as we know, the administration has a goal of producing many more graduates.
Therefore, the thinking goes, if Washington pressures accreditors to focus on student outcomes, they in turn will use their leverage over “bad” schools to make them improve. Better regulations will mean better results.
What could go wrong?
What could, and I think inevitably will go wrong is that the increased pressure to improve their outcomes will cause colleges to “game the system” by further lowering standards.
Poor as the results at many American colleges look, and weak as their educational offerings often are, they are doing the best they can with the students they enroll.
Colleges can lead students to education, but since many are unprepared for it or not interested in it, little or no learning happens. That being the case, no real improvements will come about through external pressures like Gainful Employment or accreditation standards.
Our great problem is that a high percentage of the people who graduate from high school—the raw material of colleges—are not ready for anything resembling higher education. Scores on both the SAT and ACT show low levels of preparation because many students get through high school with poor reading and math skills.
Moreover, many incoming college students, whether prepared or not, have a disengaged, even hostile attitude toward learning. Due mainly to the dominance of “progressive” theory about education in our K-12 schools, the typical freshman expects college to be rather easy and self-esteem boosting. He isn’t used to and dislikes difficult reading; he thinks that criticism of his work must be wrong or unfair; he places studying low on his list of priorities.
Such students tend to flock to “party schools” but they can be found in substantial numbers at most colleges.
Montana State English professor Paul Trout’s 1997 article “Disengaged Students and the Decline of Academic Standards,” remains essential reading if you want to understand the trouble professors have in dealing with students who expect high grades for minimal work.
Even though a large percentage of the students entering college struggle with even easy work and don’t have much interest in learning, they want to be in college because a) it’s more fun than staying around home or taking an entry-level job and b) they believe that getting a college degree will be their ticket to the good life.
Colleges are happy to enroll these young people because they bring in money. Long ago, administrators (at most schools, anyway) made the decision to let their admission standards slide so they could lure in more of these paying customers. And once those customers were enrolled, it made financial sense to keep them enrolled, which was done by accommodating their aversion to rigorous work. The curriculum was watered down and grade inflation took off.
Nevertheless, large numbers of students drop out. At bottom-tier schools that cater overwhelmingly to weak and disengaged students, the dropout percentage can exceed 90 percent. Officials try desperately to retain their students. The more they can retain, the more revenue for the school, and the better the school fares in the various ranking systems. They already have the strongest possible incentives to “graduate their students.”
Now suppose that whatever agency provides the accrediting stamp of approval that opens up the federal money stream says, “We must see better student outcomes, or else.” If you were the president of a college threatened with the loss of all that money, what would you do?
You could try to enroll better students, but every other college you compete with is also trying to get a few more of the better-prepared and motivated students. Besides, you’re already working that angle.
Your best shot at showing quick “improvement” is to reduce your dropout hemorrhaging. That can be accomplished by further lowering academic standards and doing more hand-holding so as to keep some students who’d have dropped out on campus. Faculty members who are tough graders, for example, could be reassigned or replaced with adjuncts who will be good “team players” and never fail a student.
Defenders of the administration could argue that it doesn’t matter how we raise graduation rates, just that we do. But the fixation on credentials ignores the plain fact that the U.S. already has a glut of young people with college degrees.
Our economic problem (not enough jobs that pay well are being created) cannot be solved by pushing a few more people through college. The Obama/Duncan accreditation policy is like a country whose economy is collapsing trying to make things better by printing up huge amounts of money and giving it to the citizens.
Perhaps the next administration will ignore all of the red herrings and look at the reasons why our entire educational system is dysfunctional.