Wednesday, May 03, 2017


Accreditation is for Proles

This week, two major stories came out detailing arguments by very elite, selective institutions to the effect that they should be exempt from the demands of regional accreditation.  They point to their reputations, graduation rates, and selectivity, and argue that their excellence speaks for itself.  Let the accreditors focus on troubled places, they say -- they call it “risk-adjusted accreditation” -- and leave the elites alone to do their elite thing.

(fingers tapping on the desk)

I try to keep the blog relatively free of profanity, so it’s difficult to convey the depth of my response.  To convey it visually, rather than verbally, I would need some anatomically correct dolls.

(fingers tapping on the desk)

“Accreditation is for proles,” the argument goes.  Rules don’t apply to the cool kids.

(fingers tapping on the desk)

No.  Ethically, morally, politically, common-sensically, economically.  No.

I’ll explain.

The WSJ article -- sorry for the paywall; I evernoted it before it was ransomed -- notes that

Some colleges with spectacular reputations and sky-high graduation rates complain that accreditation is little more than expensive paper-pushing that can lead to picayune demands from reviewers.

“Little more than expensive paper-pushing that can lead to picayune demands.”

Leave aside the implication that peer review is invalid because the elites are presumptively peerless.  That’s annoying, but secondary.  The real issue is that Princeton and Stanford shouldn’t have to pay people to gather data, but that community colleges and others that serve low-income students should.  This, while Princeton and Stanford maintain tax exemptions on endowments in the billions, and we take annual budget cuts.  The value of the tax exemption on Stanford’s endowment is greater than Brookdale’s entire operating budget in a given year, and they’re arguing that we should be subject to an unfunded mandate, but they shouldn’t be.

It’s beyond offensive.  It’s almost cartoonish.  

Mar-a-Lago is subject to health inspectors in the kitchen.  Speed limits apply to limousines.  Even private jets have to submit to air traffic control.  

Accreditation sets out the rules of the road for granting degrees.  If the rules of the road are burdensome -- and sometimes they can be -- then the elites could use their clout to get those rules amended.  They don’t get to exempt themselves from the rules simply by virtue of being prominent, or rich, or well-known.

If we want to adjust for risk, let’s get the units of analysis right.  Right now, the institutions with the least risky students get the most money, and the ones with the riskiest students get the least money.  That amplifies risk.  If we want to adjust risk, let’s do it right.  Fund institutions -- and I’m counting tax exemptions on endowments as funding -- based on the relative financial need of their students.  We could set a standard dollar figure per student, and then fund to fill in the gap between what the students can reasonably pay and that figure.  Do that for a decade or two, and then talk to me about unfunded mandates.  

Stanford can handle the cost.  Harvard can handle the cost.  Community colleges are far more strapped, yet they propose to increase the costs for us.

As an interim step, maybe we charge a premium to the elites to be exempt, and then use the proceeds to pay for the costs of compliance for the rest of us.  We could send our bill for the Institutional Research Office to, say, Princeton.  It’s a stopgap, but it’s better.  They’d be free of scrutiny, and we’d be free of an unfunded mandate.  

But a blanket pass just for being rich?  No.  Just, no.

The Northwestern case deals with disciplinary accreditation... which outside the health sciences, law, and maybe business, is in my experience basically useless paper-pushing rather than a real quality assurance exercise. For public administration (NASPAA), for example, you write a lengthy report saying how you comply with a bunch of de minimis quality standards that you can meet with part-timers or people with no background in the field (for example, there's no requirement that faculty have any release time for research or program administration or even some additional workload credit for teaching graduate-level courses - so you can have full-timers teaching 4-4 with 4 preps in a graduate degree program), pay a big fee and for a junket by an external review team to your campus, and get a certificate that nobody cares about except your dean so now he can say you're accredited.
Not to mention the fact that elite schools often have other high profile issues--research misconduct, sexual assault and/or harassment, multimillion-dollar donors who end up in prison for fraud--that can fall under various accreditation standards. A self-study is a valuable way to address these (assuming these institutions truly see them as problems that go beyond bad PR, which is another story).
They don’t get to exempt themselves from the rules simply by virtue of being prominent, or rich, or well-known.

But that does seem to be how the country works, doesn't it?
...why not? It worked for the bankers under Obama?

Preach to the choir, brother!

Then read my comment elsewhere that uses Baumol to justify what those schools are doing with their professional schools and would like to do with everything else. If they didn't need federal financial aid, they would probably ditch accreditation and just go by reputation. That is how private schools dodge having to meet state high-school graduation standards.

What is too bad is that they could probably learn something from a careful program review like we do, independently of accreditation requirements. We learned just how many of our students make up the engineering program at the flagship university we feed (replacing selective recruits who couldn't make it). Elite schools doing a careful self study comparison to other universities might discover that they add little value to what they recruit: Their value is in picking top students and giving the a sheepskin 4 years later. Equivalent students that attend state universities on special scholarships probably do just as well, but they don't want to hear that.
Today is Id Al Fitr most of us are celebrating the Eid al Fitr 2017 with our families. But you may want to learn more about the Eid Festival add your knowledge of the celebration of Eid.
happy eid wishes
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