Policymakers | Trusteeship

What Are They Learning?

CAREER EDUCATION REVIEW   |  September 2, 2010 by Anne D. Neal

Career Education Review editor Michael Cooney sat down with Anne Neal during a visit to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

You’ve been a huge critic of the lack of accountability in accreditation. In light of the Harkin hearings, what is your perspective now?

The question I found myself asking during the hearings was: Does Congress understand what it did when it empowered accreditors? I thought there was some very fundamental confusion on the part of the Senators as to what accreditors were supposed to do. I have been, over the years, skeptical about whether accreditation has been protecting the public interest. But I think it’s simply wrong for the Senators to somehow believe that the accreditors are supposed to ferret out fraud. They were never responsible for that. They are not expected to investigate criminal activity; they are asked to be guarantors—reliable authorities—of educational quality. In that regard, the Senators showed a fundamental misunderstanding about what accreditation was designed to do. It’s no wonder that the public doesn’t always understand either. That said, I still think that the accreditation system has failed pretty miserably to ensure educational quality.

Again, it gets back to Congress. Congress recently made clear that it largely wanted most higher education institutions to determine success with respect to student achievement, not accreditors. Given the clear relationship of student achievement and educational quality, what does that leave accreditors with? What can they do now? If the institutions themselves are really assessing success vis-a-vis student achievement, one can rightly ask, why do we need accreditors at all?

That was my next question. The states are incredibly diverse in terms of their regulations. Some states don’t have any state approval processes, and yet the new statute requires all institutions be approved or licensed by the state, which is interesting.

The accreditation system was put in place, I think, largely at the behest of the education lobby because it was already in place. It was a voluntary system that allowed existing insider peer review teams to evaluate educational quality. So from the higher ed lobby’s perspective, this was an ideal world because it properly kept Congress out of their business and it applied an existing system. The problem is that the minute you took a voluntary self-improvement system and made it a federal gatekeeper, there was a real confusion in roles. The system, as it has played out, has not really protected the public, but has been more oriented towards protecting those who were in the system. This new requirement of additional state licensing and regulation would appear to be in the same tradition, making it harder for newcomers and new delivery systems to operate on a national scale.

At the same time, higher education is getting more criticism from more sectors than ever before. From your perspective, does higher education “get it”—that they’re being suddenly held to a new level of accountability by the public?

If they don’t, I think they’ve got to start listening. You’re absolutely right that the amount of attention in higher ed is greater than ever before. I think it’s largely driven by the fact that the costs are so out of control that parents are beginning to ask, “What are we getting for all of this money?” If you look at national tests, for instance, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy looked at college graduates and found that nearly a third of them could not even compare newspaper editorials— and these are college graduates! So I think parents and taxpayers are rightly asking, “What are we getting for all of this expenditure (and debt, I might add) when we’re producing graduates who can’t think critically or understand numbers at a college level?” Higher ed ought to see that this is a wake-up call. Rather than basically shooting the messenger, it’s time for higher education to start looking at itself and exploring seriously how they can provide a quality education at a more affordable cost.

A year ago, at my daughter’s graduation from a small private college, a shocking number of people graduated with what they call a Communications: Mass Media major, and I wanted to stand up and yell, “Education malpractice!” Parents invested $100,000 in this! So back to your question, what did they learn?

What did they learn? I think this is something that the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) asks frequently because I think, at the end of the day, when you go to college you expect that your graduate will come away prepared to be an informed citizen and an effective worker. For all intents and purposes, as we see it, what most colleges are offering is a smorgasbord of choices, which are not directly focused on what students will learn, and more often focused on what faculty want to teach. The smorgasbord, in effect, allows students to drift—without the advising, without guidance, and without being pointed to what they need to learn. Essentially, adults in charge have abdicated their responsibility to point students to what graduates should know, and, as a consequence, we’re producing students who really are not equipped for the workplace or citizenship when they get out of college.

So I think the public is rightly alarmed, and it’s not surprising that there was a Public Agenda survey that found that nearly 50 percent of the public thought public higher education should be overhauled. There’s a clear sense on the part of the public, borne out by this survey, that colleges and universities can do much better with the resources that they have. While institutions are continuing to ask for more dollars, I think the public and the parents are saying, “We’ve had enough! We expect to see better performance if we are going to hand over a fortune.”

I was shocked at the Harkin hearings and particularly Senator Franken struggling to understand distance learning. The senator was commenting, “They don’t even meet in class; they never see the teacher,” as a criticism of the delivery model.

It’s such a new landscape in higher ed, and that is no doubt fueling a lot of the ferment and a lot of the discussion, because, the fact is, distance education and online for-profit education have made such advances and really revolutionized educational delivery. The traditional concept of kids going to school for four years in a residential college is no longer the primary face of higher education. I think that’s the excitement, but that’s also the foundation of the turmoil because traditional higher education sees that its model is no longer “the” model. I think it feels threatened, and rightly so, because there are other providers that are attempting to meet students more than halfway, to deliver education to them at times and in places that are user-friendly and take into account the reality on the ground. Mind you, the distance model is not without its own challenges. All of us are aware of serious questions about the ethics of recruitment, consistency of quality, the lack of face time, and dropout rates; these questions need to be answered. But, at the end of the day, the distance for-profit education model has revolutionized in many respects how people think about higher ed. One of the things that ACTA has been telling traditional colleges and universities is they need to get with the program and start figuring out ways that they can use online delivery to provide students with a quality education in a more productive and costeffective way. They need to stop doing the “same-old, same-old”; but, still, far too many traditional schools are failing to use technology in an innovative, cost-efficient and positive way.

Two headlines that I recently saw stated: 1) “Books will be obsolete in five years,” and 2) “Bill Gates claims that we can reduce the cost of education to about $2,000 a year with technology.” So we seem to have, on one hand, technology offering us wonderful opportunities, and, yet, we’re still building brick-and-mortar campuses and doing things the way we did when you and I went to school.

The landscape really is changing. I think that is what’s most fascinating right now because you’re absolutely right: there are some delivery systems that can do very strong educational programs for far less without the student ever leaving home. Will that mean the demise of the residential college? No, but certainly the range of choices and the range of prices out there are growing, and the non-profit system needs to learn from the forprofit and vice versa. Both sectors can learn from each other. I think the bottom line is that in too many ways, so called “traditional” higher education has become education by adding machine, particularly since higher ed has essentially been in “feast times” since the GI bill. The dollars were flowing freely and now that’s changed. All of a sudden higher ed sees itself with reduced resources, no more stimulus money and the reality that it is going to have to make do with what it has or even with less. Rather than being a depressing time, I think it’s a positive and exciting time because there is a silver lining here. Institutions have an opportunity to get back to their mission—to provide quality education—not climbing walls and student centers and all these things that cost a hell of a lot of money, but don’t provide any real education.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I am indeed optimistic about the future. All of us who love higher education find these times exciting. There is long overdue attention and interest in what is happening in higher education—why we have it and what higher education is supposed to provide. So this kind of conversation is difficult, but it’s also very stimulating and, ultimately, will be healthy for the whole industry.


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