Mr. George Leef, Director of Higher Education Policy American Council of Trustees and Alumni
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Good morning. My name is George Leef and I am the Director of Higher Education Policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Briefly, ACTA is an organization devoted to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability in higher education. We work with trustees, alumni, parents and interested parties to support high academic standards and balanced teaching. Some of our main concerns are the degradation of the curriculum, the politicization of teaching and campus life, the loss of academic rigor, and grade inflation. I'm pleased to be able to be here in Kansas City today to share with you some ideas that we have regarding ways in which the federal government might improve the quality of our colleges and universities.
The public has several major concerns with our higher education system, chief among them cost and quality. Since my time is short, I'll discuss just two policy changes that we maintain would be beneficial in those respects.
First, after a lengthy analysis that culminated in a study we published entitled "Can College Accreditation Live Up to Its Promise?" we have concluded that our system of accreditation does not serve us well. It has failed in its chief mission of assuring high or at least passably good academic standards, but at the same time it imposes significant costs and a loss of autonomy on colleges and universities. That is not to say that we are opposed to accreditation and want to see it eliminated, but only that it should no longer be virtually mandated by law.
Accreditation began in the late 1800s as a purely voluntary system. The standards set by organizations such as the North Central Association and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools helped to distinguish institutions that truly were higher education from others that may have called themselves "colleges" but were more like high schools or trade schools. Many, but not all reputable schools sought accreditation from one of the six regional associations.
Accreditation became almost mandatory, however, with the advent of federal student aid programs. Congress established a link between accredited status and eligibility to receive those funds. Students could only use their federal aid at accredited schools and that made the accrediting agencies the gatekeepers for a tremendous amount of money. For many schools, a loss of accreditation would be a disaster, as a large percentage of their students would go elsewhere so they could continue to benefit from federal loans and grants.
The reason for linking accreditation and eligibility was the idea that accreditation was a reliable indicator of at least acceptable educational quality. By restricting eligibility to accredited schools, the government would prevent the waste of student aid money on "diploma mills."
However, the accreditation system has not protected educational quality. Those who observe higher education have noted marked declines in the integrity of the curriculum and academic rigor. Many students now graduate from accredited institutions with an education in name only. When we studied the accreditation standards, we found that they are overwhelmingly focused on inputs and processes, with little attention paid to educational results. Rarely if ever do schools lose their accreditation or even receive some lesser sanction due to low academic standards.
While failing to ensure academic quality, the accreditation system does impose some significant costs. There is the financial cost of preparing for the accreditation visits. One university trustee told us that the diversion of manpower to prepare all the materials demanded by the accreditor cost his school into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is also a less tangible cost in the loss of institutional autonomy. Recommendations from accreditors that schools take certain actions - such as expanding the library or reducing the faculty's teaching load - not only cost money, but take away from the ability of the institution to manage its affairs as it thinks best.
Therefore, we don't believe that mandatory accreditation serves any purpose. If we severed the link between accreditation and eligibility for federal student aid funds, institutions would be free to decide whether accreditation is worth what it costs. Other, more direct means can be found to rule out diploma mills that are practicing educational fraud. This change would help to reign in educational costs and improve institutional governance.
Second, we suggest that the Department of Education should assemble an annual "report card" on all institutions of higher education in the U.S.
People who are interested in evaluating colleges and universities have at their disposal certain kinds of information - college guides like Barron's and Peterson's, promotional material supplied by schools, numerous websites, word-of-mouth, and more. But what is not readily available is information on the course requirements (or lack thereof) at colleges and universities. True, one can plow through catalogues to find out whether a school has course requirements that amount to a solid, general education, but that is quite time consuming. It is also a question that many students and parents don't think to ask about, but should.
Each school would report to the Department what courses (if any) are required for graduation. Many schools have dropped such former pillars of the curriculum as American history, college-level mathematics and lab science, foreign language, literature, and so on, requiring only that students complete some loosely-controlled "distribution requirements." An ACTA report found that none of the highest ranked colleges and universities now require American history, and that only a small percentage require any history at all. That kind of information for all core subjects would be valuable for students and parents.
The report could be augmented with information on grades, giving grade averages for the school as a whole and by departments. That information would help to show schools where grade inflation is worst. Another useful piece of information would be to show student enrollments by course. That information could be useful to taxpayers who are told that their state universities need a larger budget. If the numbers show that more students are taking courses on TV sit-coms than on chemistry, for example, they might want to question the state's spending.
We don't believe that the problems of higher education are going to be solved by more intervention from Washington. These two proposals don't require more centralized control. They simply give institutions more freedom in the first case, and decision-makers more information in the second.