Subsidy and accreditation

I’m working on a paper on subsidy and accreditation of post-secondary schooling and the Chronicle of Higher Ed, conveniently, posted an article on the City College of San Francisco’s upcoming loss of accreditation. This article highlights a few key thoughts from my paper. But let me start with a general statement of my argument, and the key insight driving that argument.

In my paper (Accreditation: Introspection Turned to Incapacitation), I argue that call for college subsidies overlook important costs that reduce the educational effectiveness of those subsidies. This is because public discourse confuses the distinct concepts of “education” and “schooling”. A school is an organization with certain features that we hope will advance the education of students. Education is a nebulous concept, a sort of general intellectual improvement and growth, that is inherently unmeasurable and comes from many sources besides schooling. For this reason, I refuse to use the term “higher education”, instead opting for “post secondary schooling” (PSS).

Accreditation of some form or another is inescapable as long as there is subsidy. A subsidy for schools requires a definition of what a school is, and the voluntary accreditation system that already existed in the U.S. was designed to do just that. The original accreditation agencies (now the Big 6 regional accreditors) arose to define what exactly PSS was, how it related to secondary schooling, and set general guidelines defining what sort of schools could be accredited members of these organizations. This created some standardization as well as minimal quality assurances that helped students to understand what to expect from these schools. This standardization and quality assurance prompted the commissioner of education to leave eligibility for federal aid up to the Big 6 when the second GI Bill was instituted in 1952. This was considered necessary when the first GI Bill (of 1944) lead to a proliferation of low quality schools intent on profiting from the sudden availability of free money.

The current accreditation standards set requirements such as including certain types of courses in the curriculum, academic standards (to be evaluated by the institution in question!), and availability of certain resources to students (such as a professionally staffed library). For the most part, there is a focus on inputs rather than outputs. And as the CCSF incident makes clear, “institutions must meet standards in areas that include financial solvency, and that student achievement alone is not a sufficient means of retaining accreditation.” It’s rare for a school to lose accreditation, but when it happens it’s usually for financial reasons rather than quality or standards. Obviously this leads schools to be more conservative and less entrepreneurial than they might otherwise have been. Schools can only change as the accrediting standards change. That is, innovation must beat the system level for any schools intent on maintaining access to subsidies that make up around half of the industry.

There’s a lot to talk about here so I’ll leave the rest for another post.