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The fifth round in the fight between Capitalized  Universities (CUs) and those who have oversight over them has begun. The Senate Education Committee is meeting to hear testimony on illegal recruitment practices at CUs and also investigating why CUs consumed more than double their proportionate share of federal student aid, and whether or not that is good for the country. Senator Tom Harkin (D Iowa) holds the gavel. You can see the August 4th hearing at this link. http://help.senate.gov/hearings/hearing/?id=19454102-5056-9502-5d44-e2aa8233ba5a

In the first round of this fight, back in the 70’s, Dr. John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix, was the only boxer in the ring. He was fighting the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which had denied accreditation for his proposed degrees. He eventually won that round.

There were four other major fights in the past 40 years and every time CUs were challenged by accreditors, legislators and bureaucrats, the CUs prevailed. Now in round five, CUs will probably triumph again.  The CUs reason for success is not that they spend lots of money lobbying, the reason is that these institutions meet (or exceed) the same standards that are evaluated at the Traditional Universities (TUs).  Thus, however accreditors define quality, or whatever legislators propose as standards to evaluate their worth, CUs need only point to the methods accreditation agencies use to evaluate the quality of Traditional Universities (TUs) and are only too happy to say, “me too.”

Accreditation agencies use an old panel peer-review method to assess institutional compliance with their rules. After the institution prepares a self-study, a panel of peers and agency staff, review the report, verify a few items, then the panel leaves (not to return for another five to ten years).  During the one-week visit (more in larger colleges), the institutions do the organizational equivalent of “holding their stomachs in”. They can certainly hold their metaphoric stomachs in for one week and then, once the threat has passed, resume breathing.

Colleges and Universities have always been on the honor system when undergoing accreditation review. Evaluators assumed the primary motivation behind TUs policies and practices was the public interest. This attitude was, for the most part, correct.  However, CUs neither operate in the public interest nor have academic quality as their main objective. CUs operate on the profit interest and have maximization of profits as the main objective. They clearly need a new method of review.

If accreditation agencies and federal regulators design special rules for CUs  they will cry “foul” and go to the courts, but the fact is that neither the student nor the public at large can accurately determine whether or not any college’s degree is a basic building block of our culture or just a piece of paper.

CU’s operate within the post-secondary market and respond to market forces. The market says that the buyer must “beware,” caveat emptor a concept so old that is enshrined as a term of art in law in its original Latin. But when it comes to education, a service given and received in the form of multiple contacts of the students with facts, faces and figures (courses, professors and empirical data), the student as buyer has scant knowledge of what level of quality she WILL receive or even what level of quality she HAS received at the conclusion of the studies. They may have felt the rigor, experienced the joy and leave with much respect for some professors, but they have nothing with which to compare their experience. They can’t answer the questions (as they can for other products or services) “Did I just have the best college education I could get?”  It is even difficult for the graduate to evaluate the extent their education advanced their professional attainment or their personal fulfillment until many years later.

Someone, some authority, must decide on the legitimacy of a degree.  Accreditation has been the traditional tool, but its validity is now questioned. TU’s have resisted for many years any quantifiable measure of the quality of their outcome. They say, (and I concur), that the best qualities of education (i.e., the synthesis of knowledge) cannot be measured.  In my own college the overarching goals are, to prepare “competent, committed, and reflective professionals”. How does one operationalized that?

Quantification and valid assessment does not occur by the accreditation agency’s rules. I will argue that “competence” can only be quantitatively assessed at the conclusion of a program via an examination, such as those given as pre-requisite for professional licenses, but CU’s can prepare their students to pass a test just like or better than TUs. Some will argue that “competence” may only be assessed by looking back at a decade of performance and determining whether or not the student has achieved it in their field. “Committed and reflective” can be minimally measured by what a professor sees, as the student demonstrates their hard work and insight. But no one can say that we produced that outcome as a university. In my experience, commitment and reflection, come from the most part from the student, gained in 18 years of living.

Edward Deming the father of organizational quality would not grade his students at NYU (would just give them Pass or Fail). He said he didn’t know how his students would be doing ten years later and that is what should be measured. The best assessment system in the world is neither objective nor valid, we use it because our rational mind demands it, but we can see by the advancement of CUs, how they can be used to project an image rather than produce a quality outcome.

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