Irene White was kind enough to send me the link to her blog on President Obama’s accreditation reforms for higher education. As you will see if you look at her piece, she discusses how accreditation generally works now and then describes the main points of the President’s plan to increase efficiency. The article is sympathetic to accreditation and to the plan. I include the introduction and link here:“In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama outlined several proposals to reform and improve higher education, including putting the brakes on the spiraling costs of college tuition. One method for achieving this, an initiative that has resonated with students and parents alike, is to make a school’s participation in certain federal aid programs dependent on it being affordable and effective. This new form of accreditation, linked hand-in-glove with the Department of Education’s College Scorecard has received broad public support.” Read further
I thank Ms. White for sending this clear exposition. I have some initial thoughts on it. Most basically, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the dramatic federalization of higher education. I recognize, of course, that the federal government has long been involved in this area. The land grant colleges were created by federal initiative in the second half of the nineteenth century (and made possible the education of many people in my own family). The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, or GI Bill, in several iterations extended federal funding for veterans and encouraged the perception of college as a universal possibility. The expansion of federally guaranteed loans and programs such as the Pell Grant have provided a big source of tuition assistance over the past half century or so. I would suggest that some of these developments may have had negative as well as positive sides. In particular, pumping money into the demand side may well have helped to push up tuition costs. But my greatest concern would be the centralization of educational policy. The funds for land grant colleges did come from Washington, but those colleges were always under the direction of the states. Now, we have not simply federal support for higher education, but an effort at central control and management. Moreover, this is not coming from the legislature, but from the executive branch, and therefore seems to me like a further elaboration of what historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency.”
I’m not sure that accreditation now works exactly the way Ms. White describes (my own university went through the periodic accreditation ordeal not too long ago), but this is not because she has it wrong, but because accreditation still seems to be a site of debate and struggle over the processes and purposes of colleges and universities. Still, a number of the standards she identifies as requirements for accreditation I either view with skepticism or oppose. Most “mission plans” that I have seen are pure jargon and shibboleth. I’d respond to the putative requirement that “diversity is fostered and the program is inclusive” by observing that one can hardly find better examples of jargon and shibboleth than “diversity” and “inclusiveness.” Do these terms refer to rigorous non-discrimination against individuals or to conscious efforts to promote the incorporation of members of disadvantaged groups? This type of question is deeply political and accrediting agencies that push this sort of requirement run the risk of imposing political opinions on institutions and, by extension, on faculty members. I would say, further, that accreditation does not currently require faculty to “engage in public service for the alumni and the community.” If an accrediting agency tried to require something like this, I’d fight it. University professors should be experts in their academic disciplines. They are only “public servants” in the sense that teaching and research are services. To require that they serve the community in some way that an agency will recognize is to draft them into someone else’s social and political agenda. This would be not just inconsistent with academic freedom, but a violation of their basic right as citizens to make their own decisions about civic commitments. Finally, my experiences with “ongoing assessment” and “continual improvement” have made me extremely cynical about bureaucratic attempts to treat educational institutions as if they were factories using quality control standards to measure the students rolling off of the assembly lines. Given these views on accreditation, I tend to worry that making the process more efficient and centralized will just push us further down the wrong path.
I am actually sympathetic to some of the elements in the President’s plan, even though I don’t think that Educator-in-Chief should be part of this elected official’s job description. I do think that the College Scorecard could be one of the more problematic suggestions. If the feds will give you more money for high graduation rates, this could well be an incentive for further watering down higher education to make sure that everyone graduates. Rewarding and penalizing institutions based on employment rates and student loan default rates raises a difficulty that we have seen in other federal education programs, most notably No Child Left Behind: it provides sanctions for events that are often beyond the control of institutions.
Early childhood education is one of the suggestions I view favorably, although (again) I am uncomfortable with its federalization. True, the effectiveness of the best-known program of early childhood education (Head Start) is debated, and the evidence on this is mixed. But I do think that early education is beneficial and if you support increasing federal involvement in schooling, then this is a reasonable proposal.
The creation of STEM master teachers for high school students also sounds like a good idea and this could be one way that we could reinvigorate our undervalued vocational-technical training. I’ll have to repeat that I would favor doing something like this at the local level. I am also somewhat apprehensive about setting this up as a national “corps,” since I keep hearing plans to re-organize our whole society into “corps.” But well-prepared STEM teachers in our high schools may well be a good idea.
Ms. White links education reform to immigration reform. This is reasonable. Currently immigrants consist of two main occupational streams: the highly educated and high-skilled and the low-skilled with relatively little formal education. However, these two streams respond to demand. Immigration is educationally bifurcated because our economy is becoming bifurcated. This raises questions about just how education reform and immigration reform will fit together. Right now, we have a need for high-skilled immigrants because we are not producing enough high-skilled native-born workers. Presumably, if improvement in our educational system increased our stock of native-born skill, we would still need some high human capital immigration because of demographic trends within the U.S. But we would need relatively fewer highly educated immigrants. It is also to keep in mind that it is simply untrue that the U.S. economy needs only high-skilled labor, especially among immigrants. On the other side, demand draws in undocumented immigrants precisely because we have jobs in areas such as meat-packing, carpet manufacture, lawn care, agricultural labor, and construction labor that rely on low-wage, low-skilled workers. While this probably does drive down wages for the native-born at the bottom of the American economy (as economist George Borjas has argued), the cheap labor also means higher standards of living for the rest of us. So, on this side of the equation, the more we regularize the status of undocumented immigrants and encourage their upward mobility through the educational system, the less we will need them and, as their wages go up, the higher the prices the rest of us will pay. Sympathy for hard-working immigrants does not change these types of hard realities.
I do wholeheartedly support the idea that we should reintegrate veterans and, since taking care of former military is clearly a federal obligation, I have no problems at all with this part of the plan.
Again, I thank Irene White for sending me the link to her thought-provoking article. I hope my off-the-top-of-my-head ruminations are not too rambling and raise some questions worth mulling over. Those who happen to read this should give her description of the Obama plan for education careful scrutiny and, of course, make up their own minds about this important topic.