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.