Accreditation: Where to Start Fixing Education

Fixing the accreditation system is the place to start fixing education.

Everyone has the best intentions in education, so why is our education system broken?

Take a minute to reflect at how amazingly optimistic and well intentioned we are about education. We invest trillions of dollars of society’s wealth in students through tuition and loans, armies of educators, psychologists, and policy makers work their whole lives to each their students as best they can, and we do all this because we believe that knowing the facts of history and the formulas of calculous will make us nobler and better citizens. Wowza!

How do we transform these good intentions into a good educational system? Where should we start?

Where to Start? — Accreditation

Many people start with the teachers. Depending on who you ask, they should receive more money, more training, more freedom, more technology, and all of the above.

Other educational innovators say education will never be effective until we have more effective parenting and more parent engagement in schools.

Still others believe that poverty is the albatross around the neck of education. Once poverty is removed or ameliorated, great education will be a synch. All of these are great, but also, none of them have worked.

I’d like to suggest another, less sexy, place to begin the revolution in education: accreditation of new colleges and universities.

Starting A College: A Rant

I am one of a very small, very tortured group of people in the world: people who are trying to start a new college.

Have you ever wondered why all colleges and universities are so old? Is it because they are so great that they stood the test of time? They certainly have some beautiful buildings. Unfortunately, I believe that universities are old largely because the system for creating new universities is completely broken. As an optimist, however, I see a broke system as the best opportunity for improvement.

Let’s use a metaphor of a driver’s license to understand the process of starting a new college today.

Imagine that you went for your driver’s test and you passed! Nice job!

When you got back to the DMV after your test, the nice woman there told you that since you passed your test, your drivers license will be mailed to you in 4 years, and between now and then you better not be caught driving or else it will be revoked.

This impossible situation essentially illustrates the catch 22 or double bind that all new colleges find themselves in.

If you start a college and call yourself a “College”, you are breaking the law and can be shut down for illegally operating a school of higher learning.

If you apply for a license you can call yourself a “College” but you cannot offer any sort of certificate of completion or official degree without (again) being shut down.

If you want to offer a degree and you fill out the 60 page application for accreditation, you still cannot call yourself a college or until 4+ years have passed. During those years literally NOTHING happens. No scrutiny, no cross-industry and professional experts, no visits. Nothing. Just waiting. . . to die.

Your application sits on a pile of paper in the accreditor’s office for four years and during that time you are an “unaccredited college”. Now how many students will you be able to attract as an “unaccredited college”? ZERO.

Since it is impossible to attract students to a new college without the offer of a bachelors degree, you won’t be alive for the four years to actually receive the accreditation. Hence, no new colleges. Hence why all our colleges were founded over 100 years ago when you could actually just start a college and offer a degree from day 1. This also explains why all our educational systems are 100 years old and focused on pre-industrial- and industrial-age skills.

Our accreditation system is neither protecting consumers, nor promoting innovation. It is JUST BROKEN. We need an accreditation system that protects consumers from $200,000 law degrees when there aren’t any jobs for lawyers, while at the same time promotes free entry and innovation in education. Read on to see how to reach this very achievable goal.

Standards Start at the Top

Think of higher education like the NBA.

Young basketball athletes and coaches know the standards that the NBA sets. In each position there is a standard for vertical leap, three-point shots, free throws, and height. And those players and coaches strive for and measure themselves on those standards. If you changed the standards of the NBA, then the entire edifice of basketball would shift to accommodate.

Likewise, higher education sets the standard for high schools, grade schools, and even preschools. If we want to change education, one leverage point is by changing standards in higher education.

So let’s convene a meeting of provosts and deans and other educational bureaucrats and suggesting to them that they change their extremely successful business model.

Wait. That won’t work. That would be like convening a bunch of oil magnates and suggesting they all start driving Nissan Leafs. Plus they do that every year. Educational thought leaders love to eviscerate these higher educational organizations and their leadership, but then nothing changes.

There is a common sense way to change the standards in higher education. Let people start new colleges. But can’t you start a college.

A New Accreditation Process

A more common sense way for higher education accreditation to work might go something like this:

  1. Someone wants to start a college.
  2. They fill out an application that has long form descriptions of their program, the degrees they would like to award and a defense of how their school will merit these degrees based on accreditor rubrics, a table of the proposed clock-hours or credit-hours of their classes, their proposed instructional staff’s training and background, and the proposed new college’s location and contact information.
  3. This application is approved within 1 month by the accreditor and a provisional accreditation is awarded to the new college allowing them to sponsor award degrees for all students enrolled after the accreditation was granted, sponsor F-1 visas for international students, and begin the separate process of applying for Title IV federal funding for higher education.
  4. The new college can open its doors and advertise to new students their accredited bachelors degree.
  5. Over the next two years, accreditors can observe and interview students, instructors, and administrators and review a set of metrics such as graduation rates, job outcomes, and racial and economic diversity.
  6. After two years a full accreditation is granted.
  7. Accreditation is re-reviewed every ten years.

This is not a big transformation. Just a common sense change that removes the double bind that all new colleges are stuck in.

I promise, with this change, a bevy of new colleges will spring up, and of course a few will not succeed, but the rest will disrupt the 100 year old standards of our ancient colleges. That disruption will be the force necessary for these complacent provosts and deans to actually change their standards, and thereby fan the flames of revolution in education.