Monday, September 21, 2009


The Washington Monthly looks at the role of accreditation in higher education, which is really just another form of licensing:
The biggest obstacle Smith faced in launching [his online education venture] StraighterLine was a process called accreditation. Over time, colleges and universities have built sturdy walls and deep moats around their academic city-states. Students will only pay for courses that lead to college credits and universally recognized degrees. Credits and degrees can only be granted by—and students paying for college with federal grants and loans can only attend—institutions that are officially recognized by federally approved accreditors.

And the most prestigious accreditors will only recognize
institutions: organizations with academic departments, highly credentialed faculty, bureaucrats, libraries, and all the other pricey accoutrements of the modern university. These things make higher education more expensive, and they’re not necessary if all you want to do is offer standard introductory courses online.
The federal government, in other words, is helping to maintain a status quo that reduces competition, drives up costs and by extension reduces access to higher education. Federal involvement presents a sufficiently large barrier that entrepreneurs (motivated by profits!) who wish to expand educational opportunities and reduce costs are being stymied in their efforts:
Smith’s struggle to establish StraighterLine suggests that higher education still has some time before the Internet bomb explodes in its basement. The fuse was only a couple of years long for the music and travel industries; for newspapers it was ten. Colleges may have another decade or two, particularly given their regulatory protections.

Imagine if Honda, in order to compete in the American market, had been required by federal law to adopt the preestablished labor practices, management structure, dealer network, and vehicle portfolio of General Motors. Imagine further that Honda could only sell cars through GM dealers. Those are essentially the terms that accreditation forces on potential disruptive innovators in higher education today.
This is extremely unfortunate, as eliminating barriers to online education would both democratize the good and provide the equivalent of a massive tax cut in the form of reduced tuition. It's just one more example of a government policy ostensibly designed to promote the general welfare -- in this case ensure that educational institutions are up to par -- that is actually wielded by special interests for their own ends.

No comments: