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.

No room in class? Earn credits online

California college students could bypass wait lists and earn credits online under a bill introduced by State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, reports the Oakland Tribune. “This is not technology for technology’s sake. It addresses a real challenge.”

State colleges and universities would be required to accept credits from faculty-approved online courses for about 50 high-demand, lower-level classes with long wait lists. The access problem is especially acute at community colleges: More than three-quarters are putting students on wait lists.

“For a long time students have really suffered from a lack of access to the courses they needed to succeed,” said Rich Copenhagen, president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.

The bill would help the many students who end up taking frivolous courses just to keep their full-time status and financial aid, backers say.

Still the move will ease pressure to provide more funding to hire instructors and add classes.

Faculty would decide which online courses would provide credit, notes Inside Higher Ed.

Likely participants include Udacity and Coursera, two major massive open online course providers, sources said. Another option might be StraighterLine, a low-cost, self-paced online course company.

Those online providers are not accredited and cannot directly issue credit. But the American Council on Education (ACE) offers credit recommendations for successfully completed StraighterLine courses and is currently reviewing MOOCs for credit recommendations, with five from Coursera already gaining approval. Potentially credit-bearing MOOCs will likely include efforts to verify students’ identities and proctored exams.

“A source familiar with the bill said it would require online providers to charge no more than the tuition rates of the colleges students attend,” reports Inside Higher Ed. At California community colleges, that would be $140 per three-credit course, though many students qualify for fee waivers.

A credit here, a credit there

Assembling credits from AP and a variety of online courses, Richard Linder earned a debt-free associate degree from Excelsior College, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. The total cost was $3,000.

His credits included art appreciation, music appreciation, macroeconomics, psychology, accounting, statistics, trigonometry, Fire Service Management and a series of Federal Emergency Management Agency courses, such as Livestock in Disasters.  He used StraighterLine, Penn Foster College, Microsoft, National Fire Academy and other online providers.

Excelsior, which is accredited, specializes in online learning for adults: “We offer busy students around the world the advantage of both earning credit at a distance and applying previously-earned college-level credit toward degree or certificate programs.”

Low-cost credit for free online courses

Students will be able to earn college credit for free online courses thanks to a partnership between the Saylor Foundation, which offers  free, self-paced college courses, and StraighterLine, which offers low-cost online courses.

Saylor students will be able to take a StraighterLine exam to earn credit backed by the American Council on Education, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Or students could enroll in a StraighterLine course but use Saylor’s free course materials to save money.

Alana Harrington, director of the Saylor Foundation, said her group’s repository of free online courses won’t go anywhere, and will still grant certificates of completion. But the partnership with StraighterLine will give students a way to get credit for low-cost online courses that’s more meaningful than a certificate.

“We understand the fact that to some students, the pure acquisition of knowledge or the certificate proving their competency isn’t enough,” she said. “Credit is a form of currency today.”

StraighterLine and Saylor will work with George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College to help students transfer credits easily.

Taxpayers subsidize elite colleges

The most selective colleges with the fewest low-income students receive the most taxpayer subsidies, concludes Cheaper for Whom?, an American Enterprise Institute Outlook report by Jorge Klor de Alva and Mark Schneider.  However, high drop-out rates at less selective colleges drive up the taxpayers’ cost per bachelor’s degree granted, they write.

College graduates usually go on to make more money and pay higher taxes, they write.  Taxpayers get a return on their investment in most cases — but not all.

. . .  in the non-/less selective schools, public institutions are in the red. Although both for-profit and not-for-profit private campuses have strong payoffs to the taxpayer, high dropout rates mean these public campuses are costly, even as they receive the lowest tax subsidies. On the other end of the selectivity continuum, the most competitive public campuses also generate net losses to the taxpayer. In contrast to less selective campuses, these public flagship campuses have low dropout rates. Their losses to taxpayers, therefore, are generated not through the lack of student success but rather through the higher costs associated with research institutions, such as higher-paid faculty teaching fewer courses.

If the “completion agenda” is successful, taxpayers will get more degrees for their money and a positive return on the subsidies at less-competitive colleges, the study concludes. However, the public flagship universities will continue to be costly.

To promote college completion, states should link funding to performance rather than enrollment and participate in Complete College America,  Klor de Alva and Schneider write. In addition, Pell Grant eligibility should be “subject to periodic performance reviews.”

. . .  if the country is to retain its competitive edge, it must reverse the current policies that result in providing the lowest levels of taxpayer support to the institutions that enroll the highest percentage of low-income, nontraditional, and minority students—the fastest-growing segments of the population.

The study endorses the Lumina Foundation‘s call for  states to help expand and strengthen “lower-cost, nontraditional education options.” That should include “more radical departures from business as usual, such as StraighterLine or Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative,” Klor de Alva and Schneider write.

Online to a college degree

Online degrees could transform high-cost higher education, writes the New York Times.

As Wikipedia upended the encyclopedia industry and iTunes changed the music business, these businesses have the potential to change higher education.

Four years on a college campus may be the ideal, but many people don’t have the time or money — or the academic interests. For the large number of students seeking a job credential, the lower-cost online classes are very attractive.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, predicted that all but the top tier of existing universities would “change dramatically” as students regained power in an expanding marketplace.

“Instead of a full entree of four years in college, it’ll be more like grazing or going to tapas bars,” Mr. Finn said, “with people piecing together a postsecondary education from different sources.”

The quality of online classes varies. Graduation rates are lower for online community college students, according to a recent study in Washington state. Professors warn online students will learn narrow job skills but not “critical thinking.” (Unlike so many traditional college students, who don’t learn job skills or critical thinking.)

Anya Kamenetz, whose 2010 book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, tracks the new wave of Web-based education efforts, says the new institutions will only continue to improve and expand. “For some people, it will mean going from a good education to a great one,” she said. “For others, it will mean getting some kind of education, instead of nothing.”

The Times takes a closer look at Western Governors University, which includes a weekly call from a mentor, the very low-cost Straighterline, Learning Counts, which gives credit for job experience, and University of the People, which offers nearly free courses to Third Worlders.

Reporter Tamar Lewin tried Straighterline statistics and English courses, discovering it’s easy to cheat and hard to learn without a teacher. Lacking motivation and unwilling to buy the textbooks, she quit.

But what about people who don’t have a degree or marketable job skills? They can take out loans for butt-in-seat classes in hopes they’ll graduate, get a decent job and be able to pay off the debt. They can turn to community colleges, which have struggled to handle enrollment growth. Or they can try lower-cost online programs.