Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Waiting for the Punchline

You know that feeling when a joke with a really long setup gets interrupted, and you never get to hear the punchline?  I had that feeling reading this story about regional accreditors applying new scrutiny to colleges with uncommonly low graduation rates.

The setup is promising.  Yes, accreditors -- mostly national, but some regional -- missed the warning signs on some for-profits, and left the public on the hook for bad loans.  Yes, some colleges have uncommonly low graduation rates for their sector, and there’s a perfectly valid argument for asking why.  In some cases, there may be decent answers, but the question itself is reasonable.  And to the extent that accreditors have been pushing outcomes assessment, there’s a first-blush plausibility to the idea that a college with a graduation rate significantly lower than its peers may be doing something wrong.

All of that is fine, assuming the usual caveats about different admissions standards, socio-economic standing of students, mission, and ways of counting.  (They’ll use four years for associate degrees, rather than the IPEDS standard of three.  That’s closer to reality, given the percentage of community college students who attend part-time and/or stop out for a while.)  The regional accreditors are savvy enough to know that judging an open-admission college against a selective one is measurement error, so I assume they’ll take that into account.  

But the problem with using accreditation this way is…



It’s all or nothing.  For all practical purposes, loss of accreditation is a death sentence.  That’s because loss of accreditation ends eligibility for federal financial aid programs, and usually ends the transferability of credits.  That was why the Community College of San Francisco fought so hard when its accreditor threatened to revoke approval.  (It’s still alive, years later.)  If the only tool that police had were the death penalty, they wouldn’t enforce much at all.  (Or, worse, they would.)  That’s the position that regional accrediting agencies occupy.

As near as I can tell, the new scrutiny of graduation rates doesn’t change that.  The article refers to additional reporting, and to the possibility of constructive suggestions from peers elsewhere.  Those are both fine, as far as they go, but neither addresses the basic issue.  As long as accreditation is a binary function -- yea or nay, nothing in between -- it will be a poor fit for the struggling-but-not-catastrophic institutions the new initiative will target.

If we want to use regional accreditors to tackle more fine-grained issues, they’ll need more precise tools.  Without those tools, they’re set up to fail.

More precise tools will matter as they have to determine whether a struggling institution is capable of turning itself around.  Guess yes, get it wrong, and we’re right back where we started.  Guess no, and the prophecy fulfills itself, probably at considerable human cost.   

If your only weapon is nuclear, in some ways, you’re unarmed.  The weapon is so powerful that you’re reluctant to use it.  

I’m not sure what those finer-grained tools might be, but that at least strikes me as the right question.  Credible threats of non-fatal sanctions could force real improvements.  Intermittently credible threats of total annihilation won’t.  

So yes, I’m glad to see the setup.  But I’m still waiting for the punchline.  Here’s hoping it’s a good one.