Departments of Higher Education should have mystery shoppers

As you know, I teach at a SUNY campus. As you can imagine, the views I express here are only my own and certainly not those of any authority figure in the bureaucracy I live in or the higher ed industry more broadly. My union would be mortified.

In my opinion–coming from a limited perspective within the sausage factory–the problem we’re facing is that universities are good at education and bad at credentialing (at least when there’s a significant demand for the signal value of a degree). This has lead to a host of problems–Baumol disease, growing administrative expense, all sorts of cultural unsavoriness, declining standards, grade inflation, etc.

Education just happens. You can’t plan for it. You don’t do x amount of philosophy and then you’re enlightened. But a navel-gazing, consequence free environment with a culture of inquiry is a fine place for education to happen.

Credentialing on the other hand is a common pool with the usual problems. It doesn’t have to interrupt the educational component of the university, but when actors in this setting follow the basic economic logic of their situation enrollments (and budgets) expand and the nature of the good produced by schools shifts from unquantifiable to commodity.

In such a setting there is a strong case to be made for regulation. At the very least to manage the common pool resource of the signal value of a bachelor’s degree, but more ideally to ensure students aren’t simply learning to minimize cost while navigate a bureaucracy.

Of course, NOL readers know that regulation is never easy and comes with many problems of its own. In fact, many of the problems I see in the industry are the natural bureaucratic outcome of such regulation (particularly as I sit here avoiding the work I’ve got to do making my tenure packet more closely resemble a checklist version of the guidelines my campus gave me. God I hate this!). For a taste of how this mess is currently killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, check out BadAssessment.

How do we improve the regulatory quality? Mystery Shoppers!

My industry is disciplined through:
* direct state regulations,
* marginal nudges through strings-attached financing,
* “self”-regulation through quasi-public regional accreditation and much-less-public discipline-specific accreditation,
* direct consumer experience,
* U.S. News (and similar) rankings, and
* Peter Theil and other critics complaining about how the education system is broken.
My proposal could be done at any of these levels, but to my knowledge is only actually done at the statistically invalid level of direct consumer experience.

Governments could invent many students and their traits and send copies of these students to a sample of online programs. Teams would manage sets of students and gather data. With several of these students taking different paths through each school the agency could learn something useful about the school as a whole–is it a degree mill? How does the actual student experience compare to other schools? Are there pitfalls that might put vulnerable groups at a disadvantage?

Peter Theil could do it more aggressively and generate an upper-bound estimate on the bullshit in the industry.

The College Board or U.S. News would probably turn it into a new costly margin of competition between schools, but that’s probably an improvement over what we’ve got now.

To my knowledge, nobody is doing this. In my opinion, given the stakes and the size of the industry, it’s worth approaching this from many directions. Mystery shoppers would certainly be a more direct evaluation than the hundreds of pages of sacrificial paperwork we’re currently using.

3 thoughts on “Departments of Higher Education should have mystery shoppers

  1. Shoppers are an appealing step but who wouls select and guide them? While education remains massively in governmental programs,, will it not continue to serve primary governmental interests?

  2. There is something to be said for separation of powers. Bureaucrats in one part of the government can be dispatched against bureaucrats in another part. That said, I’m really not sure what sorts of incentives would be likely.

    Off the top of my head I’d expect a Thiel funded non-profit effort to be more critical (perhaps unfairly so), and a state effort to be underfunded an ineffective. U.S. News, I suspect, wouldn’t do much except to shift the margins of competition between schools.

Please keep it civil

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