Higher ed system needs innovation

Published on Thursday, 15 May 2014 23:27 - Written by

Surely Theodore Roosevelt would approve. America’s higher education system can fairly be called a trust — worthy of busting — with its government-approved accreditation system that protects the old guard while discouraging new ideas.

One senator is ready to challenge that system.

“Sen. Mike Lee introduced legislation that would expand higher education opportunities for low-income and middle-class families by providing for new alternatives to the federal accreditation system,” the senator’s website explains. “The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act would allow all 50 states and the District of Columbia to develop their own systems of accrediting educational institutions, curricula, apprenticeships, programs, and even individual courses. All accredited programs would be eligible to receive federal student loan money.”

Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation explains how such a bill could improve the quality of education while driving down its costs.

“Currently, accreditation is a de facto federal enterprise, with federally sanctioned regional and national accrediting agencies now the sole purveyors of accreditation,” Burke notes. “The result has been a system that has created barriers to entry for innovative start-ups — insulating traditional brick-and-mortar schools from market forces that could reduce costs — yet has made it difficult for students to customize their higher education experience to fully reach their earnings and career potential. And because entire institutions are accredited instead of individual courses, accreditation is a poor measure of course quality and a poor indicator of the skills acquired by students.”

Here’s how Lee explained it in a recent speech.

“Imagine having access to credit and student aid and for a program in computer science accredited by Apple or in music accredited by the New York Philharmonic; college-level history classes on site at Mount Vernon or Gettysburg; medical-technician training developed by the Mayo Clinic; taking massive open online courses offered by the best teachers in the world from your living room or the public library,” he said. “This reform could allow a student to completely customize her transcript — and college experience — while allowing federal aid to follow her through all of these different options. Students could mix and match courses, programs, tests, on-line and on-campus credits à la carte, pursuing their degree or certification at their own pace while bringing down costs to themselves, their families and the taxpayers. This is what conservative reform should be trying to create — an open, affordable, innovative higher education system to better serve and secure all Americans in a global information economy.”

There’s another conservative argument for such a system. It would be implemented at the state level (and wouldn’t replace the federal system). Devolution of power is a fundamental conservative value — because state and local officials are more easily held accountable than officials in far-off Washington.

Finally, Lee’s proposal has merit because it would employ more free market principles in the delivery of higher education. It would allow innovation and competition in, where the federal “regional” accreditation system does not.

Roosevelt felt a righteous indignation with trusts — monopolies built upon exclusion.

What would he say of our university accreditation system today?