Want to make college more affordable? Start by reforming the accreditation system

For my generation, college isn't what it used to be. On average, millennials are paying ...

Posted: Dec. 27, 2017 3:07 PM
Updated: Dec. 28, 2017 11:34 AM

For my generation, college isn't what it used to be. On average, millennials are paying more than double what our parents did for tuition and fees, even accounting for inflation.

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I'm pretty sure we're not getting twice the education. And I know we're piling up more debt.

Americans owe more than $1.4 trillion in college debt, twice as much as just eight years ago. High debt loads are discouraging us from starting businesses, buying homes and starting families. A report compiled by the Institute for College Access & Success, showed that 68% of the 2015 college class had student debt, with an average of $30,100 each. As of 2016, 19 % are behind on their payments, 1% higher than 2015 and 5 % higher than 2014, so it's reasonable to believe that the number will continue to rise. There's plenty of blame to go around for this state of affairs, and most of the usual suspects (typically private lenders and for-profit colleges) are hauled out for public shaming from time to time -- usually to little or no avail.

But one culprit has gone largely unnoticed.

Backed by the US Department of Education, a cartel of regional accreditors is quietly making college more expensive by stifling competition and severely limiting students' higher education options.

Technically, college accreditation is voluntary. But as a practical matter, under the Higher Education Act -- the law governing federal university and college policy -- only schools accredited by federally approved institutions can qualify for financial aid programs. Because that's how so much of college is paid for, the nominally voluntary system is all but mandatory.

That gives accreditors great power. But the system is rife with conflicts of interest.

Many schools are dues-paying members of the very associations keeping tabs on their own accreditation. Sometimes even staff of those accreditation agencies work for the colleges they oversee. These blatant conflicts leave accreditors as part of the system they're supposed to be policing, which means their interests and the interests of the colleges and universities often intersect. Why would they refuse to renew the accreditation of the schools that are funding them? And why would they accredit new schools that might offer students a better deal or more innovative instruction? Accreditors said they implement policies, like someone having to recuse themselves/leave the room or rating committee for their specific conflict. They also implement a peer-review process so that peers from other schools hold each other accountable.

But instead of being a watchdog, self-interested accreditors have become agents of the status quo. The House introduced the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act (HERO), to address this problem through federalism -- by empowering states to establish private accreditation systems.

With the cartel broken, innovation would blossom and students would have more choices in higher education. With more choices come lower costs because traditional college administrators would be forced to compete with other institutions currently unable to thrive under the current bureaucratic juggernaut. Just like any product, under the laws of supply and demand, with lower barriers to entry, greater numbers of higher education suppliers can compete to lower the market equilibrium price. Right now, a few powerful incumbents have a de facto monopoly on the education market. By allowing new market entrants, consumers -- students -- will win.

"Imagine having access to credit and student aid for a program in computer science accredited by Apple or in music accredited by the New York Philharmonic," Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), sponsor of an earlier version of the HERO Act, said in 2013.

"Students could mix and match courses, programs, tests, online credits - la carte, pursuing their degree or certification at their own pace while bringing down costs to themselves, their families, and the taxpayers."

An additional benefit of more choice is that students could feel less pressured to go the traditional higher education route, and thus avoid what's now becoming the traditional debt load.

A 2013 study found that half of the students asked didn't believe they needed to actually sit in a classroom to learn. Wider accrediting of online learning options such as Massive Open Online Courses -- free online classes to earn college credit -- would make that option easier to utilize.

Besides online college classes, states could set standards for apprenticeships and trade certification programs providing alternatives to traditional four-year college.

Compared to Europe, the US fails to provide young people with enough middle-skilled, technical training. This hurts students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Harvard University researchers report enormous cultural barriers and stigma around American high school students specializing in vocational educational programs, while this is widely accepted among Europe's strongest economies. The Harvard researchers report that in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, after ninth or 10th grade, between 40% and 70% of young people opt for an educational program that typically combines classroom and workplace learning.

For far too long, American policymakers and universities have spread the myth that college is necessary to succeed in the modern economy. That attitude has not only driven up the cost of going to college, it has fostered a two-tier economy where those who don't attend college are treated like second-class citizens.

"The college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education," George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan wrote recently in a widely-debated article in The Atlantic.

Overhauling the accreditation system would create new educational options for those who have been ill-served -- or not served at all -- by the existing university-focused culture.

Confronted with a host of innovative competitors, colleges and universities would at last have real incentives to evolve -- and that means competing on both quality and price. And students would get better educations that more closely fit their individual goals. College is not a one-size-fits-all solution. If you plan to study the classics or nuclear physics or many other academic specialties, college could be right for you. But some people see another path for themselves, and a new accreditation system can help them find their way -- without the astronomical college costs.

Instead of trying to solve the problem by pouring more money into a broken system -- which continues to raise costs -- let's try something different. Empower states and students to find new options that serve their needs instead of the needs of university administrators and federal bureaucrats. Reforming the accreditation system will open a universe of possibilities.

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