The conundrum of higher education accreditation

A few decades ago, Paulo Freire proposed a radical approach to education[1] which is integral in critical theory, where inquiry (research) is intentionally conflated with instruction,[2] and was a forerunner to the action research and participatory action research methodologies.

Freire’s approach was truly collaborative. He traveled to indigenous villagers rather than expecting them to come to centralized institutions. Instead of bringing a prepared curriculum, he asked what they would like to study. Instead of lecturing, he was a co-learner with the villagers as they collaborated in inquiry. Through it all, he retained and imparted a critical consciousness of power relationships.[3]

Pretty obviously, Freire’s pedagogy is far removed from academia as we generally know it. It’s also the only pedagogy I know of, under which Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos’ plan for accreditation makes sense:

Now, buried in the department’s 400-plus pages of proposed regulations, are changes meant to spur competition among the nation’s accrediting organizations — the groups that are supposed to be overseeing the academic quality and federal compliance of their member colleges. Notably, the proposed rules would allow the seven regional accreditors, whose membership is largely limited to particular states, to accredit colleges outside their geographic boundaries.[4]

As the Chronicle of Higher Education article notes, accreditation by an agency recognized by the Department of Education is necessary for an institution’s students to be eligible for federally-sanctioned forms of financial aid. And there’s a lot of unhappiness with the regional accreditors that currently dominate this landscape for public institutions.[5]

For-profit institutions, on the other hand, have their own accreditors, which, like the institutions they serve, are less than reputable.[6] Indeed, the Obama administration moved to revoke recognition of one such accreditor, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.[7] Under DeVos, who seems to think for-profits are on par with, if not superior to, public institutions, this move was revoked.[8]

Ultimately, that stigma is what this is about:

Students who attend a nationally accredited college often have trouble transferring their credits or getting admission to a graduate program at a regionally accredited college, according to the written comments of a lobbying group for for-profit colleges — the Coalition for Student Opportunity and Success. Erasing the distinction between national and regional accreditors could be a step in easing the stigma of national accreditation, said the coalition’s letter to the department.[9]

My great fear with for-profit institutions is that students become “customers” and, as we all know under customer service ideology, “the customer is always right.” One professor at a for-profit informally assured me somewhere along the line she had never been pressured to reduce grading standards and I suppose that the fear that this might happen might serve as a counterweight to that pressure. But

Opening up competition among accreditors will lead to the worst-performing colleges’ seeking the least rigorous oversight, [Clare McCann] said.

“The concept of competition in any regulatory market is a complete and total myth and will cause an immediate race to the bottom.”[10]

My observation has been that students are less interested in learning than the credential that is supposed to represent that learning. They want the grades, but not the work that goes into earning those grades. Accordingly, the mantra of “the customer is always right,” applied to education, implies that grades and credentials will now be meaningless.

This would be true, of course, because education as we generally know it is anything but collaborative. Students and, crucially, their parents believe that diplomas are tickets to well-paying jobs. Those jobs are what matter, not really the education that, in a job-training paradigm, is alleged to qualify them for those jobs.[11] General education, essential for the duties of citizenship, therefore is irrelevant. Even the study for allegedly “relevant” courses is irrelevant. All that matters is the diploma.

The diploma thus becomes a consumer good, a market commodity.

Standing in the way of that dystopian outcome are the regional accreditors. I love the theory of accreditation, that educational institutions should be subject to oversight to ensure standards are maintained. The practice has, especially as neoliberalism has come to pervade higher education, become too often superficial. And that it has become so exposes a flaw in the theory.

At the same time, I value that general education that is so often regarded as “irrelevant.” Perhaps if I saw Freire in action, I would be satisfied with the outcome of his pedagogy, that indeed people emerge from it well-prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship. I’m not there. And I also don’t know what to do.

  1. [1]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  2. [2]Raymond A. Morrow with David D. Brown, Critical Theory and Methodology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994); Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  3. [3]Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  4. [4]Eric Kelderman, “The Education Dept. Wants Accreditors to Compete. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Education-Dept-Wants/246658
  5. [5]Eric Kelderman, “The Education Dept. Wants Accreditors to Compete. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Education-Dept-Wants/246658
  6. [6]Eric Kelderman, “The Education Dept. Wants Accreditors to Compete. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Education-Dept-Wants/246658
  7. [7]Jeff Horwitz, “Accreditor of for-profit colleges loses appeal to stay alive,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, December 12, 2016, http://www.startribune.com/accreditor-of-for-profit-colleges-loses-appeal-to-stay-alive/406085536/; Eric Kelderman, “Call to Shut Down a Controversial Accreditor Could Shake For-Profit Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 16, 2016, http://chronicle.com/article/Call-to-Shut-Down-a/236829; Jennifer C. Kerr, “Government severs ties with for-profit colleges accreditor,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, September 22, 2016, http://www.startribune.com/gov-t-severs-ties-with-accreditor-of-for-profit-colleges/394492031/; Jennifer C. Kerr and Collin Binkley, “Panel votes against accreditor of for-profit colleges,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, June 24, 2016, http://www.startribune.com/panel-votes-against-accreditor-of-for-profit-colleges/384237391/; Michael Stratford, “Education Department issues death penalty to for-profit college accreditor,” Politico, September 22, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/education-department-federal-recognition-for-profit-college-accreditor-228555; Michael Stratford, “Education Department terminates federal recognition of for-profit college accreditor,” Politico, September 22, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/for-profit-colleges-accreditor-terminated-recognition-228541; Michael Stratford and Kimberly Hefling, “For-profit colleges spell trouble for politicians who backed them,” Politico, September 14, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/for-profit-colleges-228128
  8. [8]Andrew Kreighbaum, “DeVos Restores Recognition for Troubled For-Profit Accreditor​,” Inside Higher Ed, November 26, 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/11/26/devos-restores-authority-profit-accreditor
  9. [9]Eric Kelderman, “The Education Dept. Wants Accreditors to Compete. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Education-Dept-Wants/246658
  10. [10]Eric Kelderman, “The Education Dept. Wants Accreditors to Compete. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 11, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Education-Dept-Wants/246658
  11. [11]Scott Carlson, “An Economist Argues That Our Education System Is Largely Useless,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 29, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/An-Economist-Argues-That-Our/242348; Christian Smith, “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2018, https://www.chronicle.com/article/Higher-Education-Is-Drowning/242195

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