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.

7 Responses to “But What About Accreditation?”

  1. Marc says:

    There’s another possibility: working with employers, and human resource organizations, to develop new employment screening standards or criteria (that are not based on simply having a college degree).

  2. Jack McShea says:

    As I understand it, accreditation is viewed by “consumers” of education as a kind of Good House Keeping Seal – a stamp of quality. But inside the academy the “producers” see it a little differently. It’s tied to federal funding and the ability of the school to offer and receive federal grants for student tuition. In other words a student cannot receive federal assistance to study at an unaccredited college or university. Isn’t that so? Maybe you can explain some of this. It’s always confusing.

    The other issue is “who watches the watchers?” Who are the accrediting agencies? Who do they bow to?

  3. I’m reminded of a remark made by Malcolm Gladwell in a talk at the 92nd StreetY that if he could, he would make it so that once you graduated, the record of where you attended would be wiped, and you would never be allowed to say where you went. It would have interesting effects on society.
    That noted, I’m about to move house, partly so my daughter can attend what I perceive to be a better school. A lot of the rationale for high status institutions is hardwired into our brains. We evolved our brains, essentially, for keeping track of social pecking orders and holding grudges. Humans are, I fear, not naturally egalitarian. We’ll seize on anything to try and place each other in some kind of socio-economic pecking order, and manipulate the system to try and move up in that order.

  4. Bryce says:

    At least in my little niche of the tech world, the old concept of the “masterpiece” seems to be making a comeback. When Ruby/Rails programmers want to get an idea of how good one of their peers is, they almost never ask, “what degrees do you have?” or “what school did you go to?”

    Instead, they ask, “what’s your GitHub user name?” GitHub is a place where people share their code. It also has some social networking aspects to it. Each code project (called a “repository”) has some number of people watching it, and some number of people “forking it” (essentially, taking the project, modifying it for their own use, and publishing the results. The higher those numbers, the more people have found it useful. It’s not a perfect metric for code quality, but if someone has a bunch of popular projects, you can assume that they know those areas pretty well.

    I was at a developers conference in SLC, and one of the speakers stated flat-out that he got job X because project Y that he published made him kinda famous.

    People have even taken it to the next level, pulling the social networking data off GitHub and analyzing it to find good job candidates. GitHub itself is trying to figure out how to monetize this data, and has begun rolling out a job hunt section of its site.

    So I think the model can work.

  5. Bryce says:

    Another question that they ask is, “Do you have commit privileges on Rails core?” In layman-speak, it’s asking whether the people responsible for the most important project in the Rails universe have recognized the quality of your contributions and extended you some measure of trust.

  6. Ben Chun says:

    “I don’t understand why these online educational enterprises even need to *pretend* to be a “college.” If we’re really looking at Clayton Christensen style “disruption,” we ought to be abandoning the whole idea of “education,” of degrees, schooling, grades, papers, publishing, theses, doctorates, any of that.” — Bruce Sterling

    Doesn’t accreditation fall into the same category?

    Also, the text-over-image design on this blog is extremely hard to look at without a tool like readability:

  7. aaron allen says:

    In Oregon as a Licensed Massage Therapist our state has become a leader for high standards in the massage profession with a strong focus on medically relevant practices, federally accredited schools and a robust licensure with a biannual continuing education requirement. I have heard of Canadian students being able to port 801 credit hours from Oregon schools as equal to the 2500 hours required in the Canadian program, and all of this has made my accredited education that much more valuable on the open market for employment in health care settings, mainly chiropractic and physical therapy practices, which in turn has been able to drive the development of my private practice (also based on injury and rehabilitative care).
    interestingly almost conversely, Oregon has moved along with a majority of nationally relevant massage professional organizations as well as other states toward an industry developed standardized computer exam called the MBLEX which seeks to level the playing field for students of viable and appropriate programs of massage study coming out of non regulated areas of the U.S. (many states have little to no regulation of the massage profession. if concerned I would recommend checking your local standards). this has defacto begun establishment of a national standard outside of accreditation and federal control (the fed has not yet sought to regulate the massage industry though they have begun to accredit individual colleges who adhere to or surpass the emerging national standards).
    the MBLEX test was developed through a seemingly robust process of polling massage community professionals as to commonly held standards for scope of practice, code of ethics, etc., and then distilling consensus through a nationally recognized panel of experts. here in Oregon we still pair the MBLEX exam with a practical exam in front of live examiners where knowledge of anatomy and physiology are tested along with client safety procedures in a clinical testing environment interacting with human beings.
    In conclusion I would like to point out that I think the MBLEX and other industry guided standardized tests if allowed to evolve through time are a good thing and could be one answer to the problem of accreditation discrimination as well as stimulating of diversity in education. But I would also share that I value greatly the high standard of client care upheld in my region which would not have developed without accreditation, not to mention the benefit of displaying my 4.0 GPA from a federally accredited college on my resume, a rarity in my profession.

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