Higher ed a la carte


Should students loans be available for job training?
Accreditation is a higher ed cartel, argues Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, on The Federalist. He proposes letting states accredit alternative postsecondary programs, such as job training, apprenticeships, hybrid on-campus/on-the-job models and distance-learning options. People seeking skills — but not necessarily a degree — could assemble the education they need, a la carte, using federal aid to pay their costs.

Under the federal Higher Education Act, students are eligible for Title IV student loans and grants only if they attend formally accredited institutions. That makes some sense, for purposes of quality control. Except that under the law, only degree-issuing academic institutions are allowed to be accredited. And only the U.S. Department of Education gets to say who can be an accreditor.

By blocking new competitors, the system drives up costs, argues Lee. That prices most Americans “out of the post-secondary opportunities that make the most sense for them” and plunges “most of the rest deep into debt to pursue an increasingly nebulous credential.”

The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act would give states the power to create their own, alternative systems of accrediting Title IV-eligible higher education providers. . . . State-based accreditation would augment, not replace, the current regime. (College presidents can rest assured that if they like their regional accreditor, they can keep it.) But the state-based alternatives would not be limited to accrediting formal, degree-issuing “colleges.” They could additionally accredit specialized programs, apprenticeships, professional certification classes, competency tests, and even individual courses.

States could allow the Sierra Club to accredit an environmental science program, a labor union to accredit its apprenticeship program and Boeing to accredit an aerospace engineering “major,” Lee writes. Professors — or others with expertise — could go freelance, offering their teaching talents online.

In today’s customizable world, students should be able to put their transcripts together a la carte – on-campus and online, in classrooms and offices, with traditional semester courses and alternative scenarios like competency testing – and assistance should follow them at every stop along the way.

Employers already have shifted a lot of job training to community colleges. Now they could keep it in house — if their state agreed — with federal taxpayers footing the bill. Smashing the cartel could make today’s quality control problems even worse, responds Jordan Weissmann on Slate.

The entire point of requiring schools to be accredited before they can become eligible for federal aid is to make sure students don’t take out loans for a worthless education while burning taxpayer money in the bargain. As the rise of unscrupulous for-profit colleges demonstrates, the accreditors have basically abdicated that responsibility. Adding yet more accreditors into the mix, and making more programs eligible to profit off of loan dollars—without making it easier to kick schools out—would only worsen our problems with predatory colleges.

“Agencies might be more willing to punish a bad actor if they could downgrade its accreditation status rather than revoke it entirely—which is the only option available to them right now,” writes Weissmann. That’s one of the ideas proposed by New America policy analyst Ben Miller on EdCentral.

CCSF was ‘too big to fail’

City College of San Francisco has dodged a closure order and won two more years to improve, writes Kevin Carey, who directs education policy for the New America Foundation, in the New York Times. With 77,000 students, CCSF proved to be “too big to fail,” despite “chronic financial and organizational mismanagement.”

The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges had set a July closure data, but faced a “fierce political backlash . . . challenging its right to exist,” writes Carey. The closure threat apparently has passed.

If accreditors can’t hold a college responsible, he asks, who will?

California’s 112 community colleges are run by locally elected boards which are required by law to share decision-making power with faculty unions.

At City College, the faculty dominated, said the accrediting commission. The college hired many more tenured professors than it could afford.

The accreditor, an independent, nonprofit body, can block federal financial aid by denying accreditation. “But like an army with no weapons other than thermonuclear bombs, its power is too potent and blunt to use,” writes Carey.

Accreditors are also financed and managed as membership organizations of colleges. Other colleges contribute volunteers to conduct site visits and evaluations, and college administrators are generally loath to condemn peers at other institutions publicly, particularly since their turn for review will eventually come. As a result, only the absolute worst-case colleges even approach facing meaningful sanctions. Simple mediocrity is ignored.

Politicians generally take a hands-off approach to higher education. While many big-city mayors have staked their careers on turning around troubled K-12 school systems, it is rare to see a major political effort focused on fixing dysfunctional local community college.

There’s little oversight of private nonprofit colleges, even though many  “receive a vast majority of their revenue from federal financial aid,” adds Carey.

For-profit higher education has come under federal and state scrutiny. Yet Corinthian Colleges, which is closing down after multiple investigations, had not lost accreditation for any of its campuses.

On EdCentral, Ben Miller has suggestions for improving accreditation.

Reprieve! San Francisco college won’t close

“In a stunning turnabout, City College of San Francisco will not be forced to close” on July 31, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.  The college is expected to retain accreditation under new rules proposed Wednesday by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

The 19-member commission expects to change its rules, let City College request more time to comply with accrediting standards, and avoid what are widely viewed as the catastrophic consequences of shutting down a college of nearly 80,000 students who would have few other educational options.

CCSF will have two years to implement “new and sustained practices that meet standards of quality,”  said Barbara Beno, commission president.

The commission has been under heavy political pressure to give CCSF more time to deal with management and governance problems.

CCSF hopes for accreditation reprieve

Faced with losing accreditation on July 31, San Francisco City College supporters hope a proposed policy change will lead to a reprieve, reports the Los Angeles Times. However, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges won’t release details of the proposed new policy till Wednesday.

The Novato-based accrediting panel, which oversees California’s 112 community colleges, moved last year to revoke the City College of San Francisco’s accreditation, citing long-running financial and governance problems.

. . . During a presentation behind closed doors this week, systemwide Chancellor Brice Harris and City College Chancellor Arthur Q. Tyler, among others, told commission members that the college has addressed 95% of the deficiencies cited by the panel and argued for more time to meet all standards.

The accreditation crisis has turned into a highly politicized game of chicken, according to Inside Higher Ed. “Neither side is backing down while the fate of the college, its 77,000 students and even a besieged accreditor hang in the balance.”

CCSF will be able to delay losing accreditation until a lawsuit by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is resolved. The trial is set for late October. The college also has filed an appeal.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, the minority leader in the House, threatens to close down the accrediting commission if it doesn’t give her home-district community college a break.

“ACCJC’s faulty reliance on outdated analysis of the health of City College, and its pursuit of an unworkable policy that ends state and federal funding to CCSF and puts the students and faculty in academic limbo is professionally crippling and destructive,” Pelosi said this week in a written statement, which two other Bay Area members of Congress signed. “Should this failure of leadership persist, new leadership is needed at ACCJC. The U.S. Department of Education should also consider whether to recertify ACCJC as an accrediting body.”

Commission leaders have offered to rescind the termination decision if CCSF drops its accreditation and applies as a new institution, triggering a two-year “candidacy” status.

Accrediting courses instead of colleges

Accrediting courses, instead of colleges, would let students customize their higher education and lower costs, argues Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation.

Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., has introduced a proposal to let states allow any entity to credential courses. The Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act—or HERO Act — resembles a proposal by Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican.

Currently, accreditation is a de facto federal enterprise, with federally sanctioned regional and national accrediting agencies now the sole purveyors of accreditation.

The result has been a system that has created barriers to entry for innovative start-ups—insulating traditional brick-and-mortar schools from market forces that could reduce costs—yet has made it difficult for students to customize their higher education experience to fully reach their earnings and career potential. And because entire institutions are accredited instead of individual courses, accreditation is a poor measure of course quality and a poor indicator of the skills acquired by students.

Sen. Lee explained the HERO Act in speech at Heritage last winter.

“Imagine having access to credit and student aid and for a program in computer science accredited by Apple or in music accredited by the New York Philharmonic; college-level history classes on site at Mount Vernon or Gettysburg; medical-technician training developed by the Mayo Clinic; taking massive open online courses offered by the best teachers in the world from your living room or the public library…

“This reform could allow a student to completely customize her transcript—and college experience—while allowing federal aid to follow her through all of these different options. Students could mix and match courses, programs, tests, on-line and on-campus credits à la carte, pursuing their degree or certification at their own pace while bringing down costs to themselves, their families and the taxpayers.”

Higher education groups are considering new accreditors to review online course providers, reports Inside Higher Ed. “Some details are emerging on two bids for new accrediting bodies for non-college providers of higher education, such as online course creators or issuers of digital badges.”

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is considering providing “quality review” for entities such as StraighterLine, which offers low-cost online courses but not credentials. 

Another approach, called Modern States, would review individual online courses, rather than institutions.

Rubio: Dream the affordable American Dream

Education and the American Dream was the theme of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s keynote speech at Making Community Colleges Work, a Next America session sponsored by National Journal at Miami Dade College.

The son of immigrants, Rubio used Pell Grants, student loans, work study and summer jobs to pay for a four-year degree and law school. He started his career as an attorney with $100,000 in student loans.

To find a good-paying job, “it is vital that you get the right degree geared toward the right industry,” Rubio said.

Nationally, majors such as business, liberal arts, and hospitality have underemployment rates at or above 50 percent. There are simply more graduates than jobs in these industries. Meanwhile, engineering, health services and education all have underemployment rates less than 25 percent. 

Students and their families need to be equipped with the information necessary to make well-informed decisions about which majors at which institutions are likely to yield the best return on investment. This is why I, along with Senator Ron Wyden, proposed the “Student Right to Know Before You Go Act,” which aims to give students reliable data on how much they can expect to make versus how much they can expect to owe.

Rubio called for making income-based repayment the universal method for student loans.  He also proposed an alternative to student loans known as Income Share Agreements.

Let’s say you are a student who needs $10,000 to pay for your last year of school. Instead of taking this money out in the form of a loan, you could apply for a “Student Investment Plan” from an approved and certified private investment group. In short, these investors would pay your $10,000 tuition in return for a percentage of your income for a set period of time after graduation – let’s say, for example, 4 percent a year for 10 years.

This group would look at factors such as your major, the institution you’re attending, your record in school – and use this to make a determination about the likelihood of you finding a good job and paying them back. . . . Your only obligation would be to pay that 4 percent of your income per year for 10 years, regardless of whether that ends up amounting to more or less than $10,000.

Income Share Agreements are a great idea, writes Richard Vedder. Investors “buy equity in students as opposed to lending to them.” The risk shifts from students to investors.

Rubio also called for better career and vocational education in high school, apprenticeships and “more pathways for working parents” at the community college level.

Reforming the “broken accreditation system” would open the door to “new, innovative and more affordable competitors,” he said. He proposed a new accrediting agency for online education. With standardized tests to demonstrate competency, students could learn online or on the job and earn a low-cost job certification or degree.

City College of SF wins accreditation reprieve

City College of San Francisco will not lose accreditation until a legal challenge to the revocation is resolved, reports Bay Cities News. An accrediting commission had set a July 31 revocation date, after charging CCSF with mismanagement and poor governance.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera contested the revocation decision by the western regional branch of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow’s injunction will be in effect until a trial is held. A trial date will be set at the end of January.

Karnow said in a 53-page decision that the injunction was justified because of the severe harm to students, teachers and the city if the college lost accreditation and had to close.

“Those consequences would be catastrophic,” Karnow wrote.

“Without accreditation, the college would almost certainly close and about 80,000 students would either lose their educational opportunities or hope to transfer elsewhere; and for many of them, the transfer option is not realistic.

Herrera’s lawsuit and a similar lawsuit by the California Federation of Teachers charge the commission used unfair, biased or illegal procedures, was prejudiced against the college’s “open access”  mission and that two evaluation teams lacked adequate representation by professors.

As Matt Reed predicted, CCSF is too big to fail.

California accreditor survives — for now

The commission that accredits two-year colleges in California will keep its federal recognition for another year, reports Inside Higher Ed.  A federal panel told the accreditor to show that it is complying with federal standards.

The accreditor, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, has been under fire for its decision this year to revoke accreditation of City College of San Francisco. Many supporters of the college — faculty unions, student advocates, and some elected officials — had been pushing for the panel to recommend the Education Department strip the accreditor of its federal recognition.

More than two dozen students, faculty members, union leaders and other supporters of City College of San Francisco testified Thursday and Friday.

The federal panel also voted to recommend another year of recognition for the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which is under fire for how it’s handled complaints from adjuncts.

Last week’s meetings of the federal accreditation panel occurred against the backdrop of a larger debate over the future of accreditation that has begun to play out in Washington as Congress considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Policy makers have discussed, among other issues, whether accreditors are doing enough to promote innovation in higher education and whether they should do more to keep college affordable.

Outgoing Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter asked the panel to revisit its 2011 recommendations for improving accreditation and make new suggestions.

357 steps to accreditation at CCSF

City College of San Francisco is working to retain its accreditation and avoid a shut down, reports Inside Higher Ed. But the efforts may not be enough.

Administrators and faculty members have made steady progress on 357 tasks they must complete to satisfy the Accrediting Commission for Junior and Community Colleges. The college last week tapped Arthur Q. Tyler, a veteran community college leader, as its new chancellor. And Brice Harris, the chancellor of the state’s community college system, praised City College for the changes it has made.

“It’s been an exciting and exhausting 100 days,” Harris said last week during a conference call with reporters.

For example, he said the college, which enrolls 80,000 students, has made strong steps to stabilize its precarious finances. College officials recently decided to suspend plans to build a new performing arts center. And, working with the mayor’s office, they strengthened weak fiscal controls by filling several key positions in payroll and auditing.

City College also is trying to collect an estimated $10 million in unpaid student fees.

A website, CCSFForward includes updates on each of the 357 tasks the college is supposed to complete.

For example, efforts to better track student learning outcomes is about half complete, according to the website.

Faculty unions have filed a lawsuit to block closure. The suit claims the accreditation commission had overreached its authority.

Accreditor shuts down innovation

“We’re going to encourage more colleges to innovate, try new things, do things that can provide a great education without breaking the bank,” President Obama told college students in Scranton, Pennsylvania. “For example, a number of colleges across the country are using online education to save time and money for their students.”

That same day, Altius Education, an innovator in online education, learned it is under federal investigation, reports Matthew Zeitlin on BuzzFeed. The Justice Department “did not respond to an inquiry about the details of the investigation.”

The notice was the culmination of a more than two-year battle between Altius and the Higher Learning Commission, one of two members of the 118-year-old North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which controls accreditation — the vital credential that gives college degrees value — for over 1,000 colleges and universities in 19 states. The HLC’s university backers have an obvious interest in avoiding the sort of low-cost competition that reformers, and now the president, seek.

“It struck me as highly ironic and deeply frustrating that we were trying to do exactly what Obama describes what the market needs and yet we’re getting resistance from his administration,” said Paul Freedman, who started Altius in 2004.

Altius partnered with Tiffin University, a small private college in Ohio to create Ivy Bridge College, which offered Tiffin associate degrees to online students planning to transfer to four-year institutions. Tiffin controlled the academics, while Altius handled marketing, technology and student services such as “personal success coaches.”

Students paid just below $10,000 a year, on average, much of it covered by federal student loans. About two-thirds transferred to two- or four-year institutions, the program’s goal.

In 2012, Ivy Bridge won a Next Generations Learning Challenges funded by the Gates Foundation.

In a 2010 accreditation review, the HLC said Ivy Bridge furthered the university’s mission and was  “an excellent strategic initiative” that “addresses an underserved population through a strong curriculum . . . and a very good online portal for program delivery.”

All that changed in late 2011. Tiffin told HLC that Ivy Bridge planned to apply for independent accreditation and become Altius University. The commission  and its president, Sylvia Manning, saw “another for-profit university gaming the system,” writes Zeitlin.

Manning had launched a crusade against what she viewed as suspect partnerships between traditional universities and for-profit upstarts, and instituted new rules in 2010 to require further HLC approval of agreements between accredited schools and for-profit companies that substantially changed the nature of the school.

In a report obtained by BuzzFeed, the HLC took steps toward shutting down the experimental arrangement precisely because “student body, faculty and educational programs are not like the structures” on the campus of the brick-and-mortar university that was its partner. This difference was the entire point of Ivy Bridge, and is at the heart of Obama’s proposals.

HLC complained that Ivy Bridge had a one-year retention rate of 25 percent, “notably poor even for 2-year students.”

Ivy Bridge’s five-year graduation rate is 31 percent, compared to 18.3 percent for Ohio community colleges,according to Altius and Tiffin. The graduation-and-transfer rate — transfer is the goal for most students — is 64.1 percent, compared with 42.1 percent at community colleges.

Under HLC orders to sever the partnership, Tiffin shut down Ivy Bridge College on Aug 1.  HLC’s statement primarily cited “bureaucratic concerns,” writes Zeitlin. So much for innovation.

Here’s the Ivy Bridge timeline of events.