Probably the most common question I get about the future of higher ed. In the words of Ezra Klein:
“So in Kamenetz’s world — a world that I agree would be far better for pure learning — what steps into the role played by accreditation, both the one you get from the college you went to and the one you get from the relative selectiveness of that college against other colleges?”
This question assumes that the system of accreditation we have works well today, for the majority of people.
Actually, accreditation today works well for people like Ezra and myself who managed to get into and graduate from selective schools. This is by definition a small minority of people since “selective” means “lets in a small minority.”
It works less well for people who graduate from less selective schools.
It works extremely poorly for people who do not get degrees–often because they are poor and have to work more hours while they’re in, or instead of going, to school. They are cut out of a good percentage of decent-paying jobs. In fact, even in progressive circles there isn’t much public conversation about improving the quality of non-college jobs because the human capital policy we have assumes–”oh we’ll send more people to college so they can qualify for good jobs.”
This third group is a majority of Americans–just over 60 percent have less than an associate’s degree.
So, “accreditation” today aka the BA imperative, does not work well for most people.
I am going to argue that as long as the value of your degree is correlated with the selectivity of the college you went to, we’re probably forcing out a lot of very talented people (Harvard could fill its undergraduate class with valedictorians ten times over–sucks for all those kids who don’t make it!). As long as your success in college is correlated with how much money your family makes, even if you are just as smart and just as well prepared, for the simple reasons that you have to work more hours in school and that the cheaper colleges you attend have fewer resources to help you, our accreditation system works against social mobility.
I’m going to also argue that what we really want, to promote maximum prosperity for the maximum number of people, is for everyone to be able to find jobs suited to their talents. “Bad fit” leads to comparatively lower earnings and less job satisfaction. This is just as true by the way for the double-Ivy-League degree lawyer who’d rather be building boats in Key West, as it is for the waitress with a keen analytical mind who should be working for Accenture.
Still, accreditation remains a huge unresolved question.
One answer I look at in DIY U involves building reputation-based online networks where people can create portfolios and be judged on their actual work and accomplishments, not by the names on their diplomas. The Internet generally makes it easier to hire based on demonstrated skills, not how you look on paper.
Another answer involves judging colleges differently, for instance by their graduates’ improvement in learning or by starting salaries of graduates, rather than by how selective they are. Judge by outputs, not inputs.
Yet another answer is simply to create new forms of accreditation. Excelsior College for example is a pioneer in assessing and awarding credit for independent learning.