Thursday, June 20, 2013

Alternative Accreditation as a Means to Create Competition in the University Industry Price Structure

This post is actually inspired by reading the following article by the AEI Institute.

I've always been intrigued by the process of peer evaluation and critique and I've always been a free marketeer. I'd like to think these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, but instead intertwined.  I became a JSTOR junkie (Academic Search Engine with the great scholarly journals all aggregated together for research) by first year at Columbia and have not turned back since.

One of my favorite places in the whole wide world is Columbia Library.  I remember first learning about how the building that actually has the title "Columbia Library" was actually built to be the official library of Columbia but how when they started to place books in the building, they feared collapse, so the architects designed the building that currently houses the library and use the original building as administrative offices.

The library building in its current manifestation is perfect.  It is like a sacred shrine to academia.  I almost feel the holiness walking in inside its walls.  I have many incredible memories there writing papers, conducting research, and studying for exams.  These activities were conducted in almost prayer like fashion making me, the participant, feel like I had to live up to the structure they were temporarily residing in.  I doubt I did that, but I certainly aimed for it whenever inside.  I think it has this same effect on all generations that go to Columbia.

I remember reading, in college, Herrnstein and Murray's famed book The Bell Curve.  Having taken a variety of intelligence tests early on in life to get into elite private schools in the 1980's, I was familiar with the notion of a bell curve and with many standardized intelligence exams.  I was even familiar with the original intent of Terman's exam and the Stanford Binet Test, to find good pilots to find in the World War.  For that, the test was actually extremely accurate.  I like the idea of measuring intelligence for the purpose of selective service and national security endeavors.  Of course, a lot has been learned about the nature of intelligence since Terman and certainly the leading experts in the field today almost conclusively agree that intelligence is not as stagnant as was once thought. (I do not agree that is completely nurture based and that nature plays an insignificant role.  I think this is apologetics.)   Intelligence is not confined to verbal and mathematical ability either.  However, in measuring those two forms of intelligence and anglo-european cultural intelligence it is actually not a terrible indicator.  How useful that is in everyday classes is definitely something that can be argued against.  It is also a particularly useful endeavor, to measure intelligence, in seeking classification for learning differences and getting accommodations on standardized tests, like the SAT's.

Why am I deviating to discuss my view of intelligence tests?  Because when they came out with this groundbreaking and highly controversial book, they violated the laws of academic research that were normally followed when conducting any large scale study.  In fact, many of the critiques of this book attacked the book not only for inconsistencies in footnoting, but mostly for the lack of participating in a peer review process.  For not publishing their findings in peer review journals first, they got lambasted and looked down upon by most psychometric scholars.  In fact, many came out bluntly calling the book racist and filled with hatred.  While I do not think that was the intent of the authors, I do think the lack of going through the normal peer review channels made the book particularly vilified in the intellectual community regardless of what it stated.  By not going through those channels, the book was destine to be disputed vigorously.

Why do major works of scholarship usually go through these academic peer review channels?  Usually the nature of the process, is to not only critiquing the author's writing, but also to helping perfect the study or theory, to help put the study in the context of current research in the given field, to compare and contrast it to the norm.  This process is akin to a harkness method of teaching where peers critique each others viewpoints in an aim to find more perfection and to learn from one another.  It creates a sense of academic community and integrity.  It also weeds out studies and disproves theories that are inconsistent or lack authenticity in a way the free market would.

There is a merit to scholars in a given field peer reviewing their own, critiquing their own, offering feedback, advice, and their own experiences and judgment to a fellow academic.  It is precisely this reason that I greatly enjoy reading peer review journals.  Accreditation can be done in the same way.  In fact, real solid accreditation of any university or secondary institution is conducted this way.

 While NJ public schools have increasingly disparaged the middle states review process and seen it as unnecessary, this is not the case throughout the country.  NJ public schools have largely done this because of the cost of the Middle States process and the  introduction a while back of state accreditation for public schools, NJQSAC. Hence, NJ public schools no longer view Middle States as the gold standard to accreditation.  In fact, some amazing Bergen County high schools and elementary schools have stopped the Middle States process in their school altogether for over a few years now.

The benefit of conducting a Middle States evaluation towards accreditation is that teachers in your own school take ownership over the process, create committees, and get to redefine the direction of the school and what the mission of the school is really all about.  Peers review each other and their very school (not one school reviewing another, although there might be merit to this).  This also ensures that the school is compared relatively accurately to other schools and fulfills similar core educational goals living up to key universal standards.  Middle States is actually one of 7 regionally accredited programs, albeit the most popular (and more accepted that a few) among fine colleges and private schools in our area.

The other most popular form of accreditation is national accreditation, which for the technical and career colleges, many online, but some two year colleges ascribe to.  Most are for profit universities or institutions.  These schools are not comparable to four year liberal arts institutions.  They do not have the same type of faculty nor do they necessarily have the same course requirements for a diploma  They also do not necessarily have any standards for acceptance to their programs.  This is the reason that national accreditation is not accepted by top notch graduate programs.

In addition to this other form of accreditation, there is accrediting agencies that offer accreditation without being recognized by anyone or any respected institution.  There is actually a list of them on wikipedia some 200 long.  These "agencies" are for profit endeavors and many are actually created by the institution that claims it is accredited.  This process provides no quality control whatsoever.

A new phenomenon (when I mean new, I mean the past 20 years), has occurred with the invention of the internet and the increase in push for students to attend college, any college or risk being unemployable.  Students have started to attend unaccredited or nationally accredited institutions in record number.  Students, who in the past would have attended community college or trade school, are now seeking to attend "universities" that are nationally accredited.  So, you say, what is the problem?  In reality, there is not a problem if these students are informed that their degrees will not qualify them to go to graduate school at regionally accredited institutions or transfer to regionally accredited universities with their nationally accredited course work being accepted.

However, it is unclear just how many students actually choose to go to nationally accredited or unaccredited universities without the knowledge that their degrees will not be worth as much as regionally accredited degrees would be.  We are essentially creating two tiers of post high school education.  One for the "non college folk" and one for the "college folk."  To further complicate this, within the regionally accredited programs there is a growth of certification programs and non traditional route educational models which are largely created by regionally accredited universities in an attempt to get more money from their paying undergraduate and graduate students to pay for PhD candidates and professors.

While I do not entirely besmirch a non-profit organization's rather capitalistic endeavor (in fact, I actually totally get it.  There is limited money allocated for truly brilliant and worthy doctoral students and I get wanted to woo the best), I do see this as a process that actually waters down the meaning of a degree at some of these institutions.  For example, Harvard now offers a weekend Executive MBA.  NYU offers "certification" in a variety of areas.  These non traditional programs do not require the same rigor in their admission process and therefore take candidates who normally, and historically, would never make the cut in those institutions graduate schools.  In many cases, the same candidates for these programs are also candidates for nationally accredited schools or non recognized institutions.  Perhaps if they made these program slightly difficult to get into, if they got accreditation for these programs from specialized, recognized agencies, then perhaps they would have some real value and be a great alternative for students who are not capable or willing to attend a post college program or a 4 year university.  They might also alleviate the insane financial burden on many students who will never make enough to pay down their debt.

Unquestionably, these non-traditional programs in acceptable universities, often with big names, are looked at by employers with more respect than full degrees for unaccredited universities, but there need to be a level of skepticism in these programs as well.  Since no real degree is awarded (not even specialized accreditation necessarily awards accreditation to many of these programs), it is unclear exactly what the participant accomplished.  It is also unclear that by being admitted to one of these programs, the student is any "better" academically than a student who graduated from regionally or non accredited institutions.  This would need to change.

There will always be a way to differentiate the truly top schools from those that fail to meet those same standards just like there are always ways to differentiate job candidates or students.  The current price structure at American universities is failing our students, but creating "cheap colleges" that are un-accredited or not recognized by all is not the solution.  I'm not sure what is, but this will only hurt the fabric of our notion of what it means to go to college, to have a degree, to be educated, and to be prepared to be leaders in the world.  I'm all for competition.  I love the idea of colleges lowering their costs, universities creating competition amongst each other for the best and brightest with merit based scholarships, and I love the increase in accessible courses online.  I just want to see standards not diminished and America leading the world once again instead of following.