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Report: Online Courses and Free Market Can Crack Higher Ed 'Problems'

A new brief from a public policy think tank suggests getting rid of the link between federal student aid and college accreditation and even allowing the market to choose which schools are worthy of staying open.

The National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, wrote the brief to address the dual challenges of rising college costs and ill-prepared students who aren't truly ready to join the workforce full time. As "Higher Education and Accrediting Online Courses," written by Christian Yiu, stated, "Traditional higher education is not meeting the needs of employers." Yiu cited a survey by data provider PayScale and executive development firm Future Workplace that found that while almost 9 in 10 graduates (87 percent) considered themselves ready to go to work, only half of managers felt the same way about recent graduates.

The alternative, as the report noted, was for students to attend alternative types of online courses, such as MOOCs or workforce-oriented classes. While these can often deliver a less expensive college education, Yiu wrote, they face a considerable hurdle: The current school accreditation process favors tradition over innovation, and the alternatives may not get the accreditation they need for legitimate consideration by students relying on federal financial aid.

As Yiu asserts, "Fundamentally, accreditation no longer serves as a true indicator of the success in higher learning that sets colleges apart, but rather as petty requirements based on inputs (such as a school's disciplinary code and mission statement) rather than (for most of them), evaluating output."

Yiu's recommendation: Shift the emphasis of accreditation from the institution to the individual course. "The transformation to accreditation of online courses will allow those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to learn for competency and experience, while saving money and becoming more desirable job candidates," he said in a prepared statement.

The report offered several reforms to the accreditation process that would encourage improvement of the quality of online learning and increase its quantity:

First, break up the "college cartel." Most of the time, Yiu wrote, "regional accrediting agencies are funded by college and university members," which makes accreditors "more reluctant to deny accreditation renewal." Yet accreditation is part and parcel of federal financial aid. The result: "This creates a cartel where schools are seeking approval from the agencies and the agencies purposely weed out schools to limit competition."

Second, implement a model whereby students earn credit for subject mastery. As Yiu explained, this approach would encourage students to take classes from multiple institutions and present the whole of their coursework to potential employers based on the needs of the job they want.

Third, put accreditation into the hands of the "market." For example, suggested Yiu, "Universities could host their own, smaller-scale online courses in partnership with corporations. Independent accreditors could certify courses that meet companies' skills and knowledge standards. Students could learn for competency and experience, while saving money."

Technology, he added, is allowing increasing numbers of students to attend online classes, introducing competition into the education marketplace. Eventually, he said, "accredited online learning will revolutionize the quality of higher education and increase its productivity."

The briefing is freely available on the National Center for Policy Analysis website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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