• Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation
    Reinventing Higher Education: The Promise of Innovation
    by Ben Wildavsky
  • Accountability in American Higher Education (Education Policy)
    Accountability in American Higher Education (Education Policy)
    Palgrave Macmillan

Who Will Hold Colleges Accountable?

Last month The Chronicle of Higher Education published a damninginvestigation of college athletes across the nation who were maintaining their eligibility by taking cheap, easy online courses from an obscure junior college.

In just 10 days, academically deficient players could earn three credits and an easy “A” from Western Oklahoma State College for courses like “Microcomputer Applications” (opening folders in Windows) or “Nutrition” (stating whether or not the students used vitamins). The Chronicle quoted one Big Ten academic adviser as saying, “You jump online, finish in a week and half, get your grade posted, and you’re bowl-eligible.”

On the face of it, this is another sad but familiar story of the big-money intercollegiate-athletics complex corrupting the ivory tower. But it also reveals a larger, more pervasive problem: there are no meaningful standards of academic quality in higher education. And the more colleges and universities move their courses online, the more severe the problem gets.



Why One Accreditor Deserves Some Credit. Really.

It's hard to be in the accreditation business these days. The original regional accreditors were founded a long time ago, in a different world. The first associations, set up on the East Coast in the late 1800s, were basically clubs with membership criteria that limited entrance to institutions fitting the classic collegiate mold.

That voluntary, peer-based approach made sense in an era when higher education was a smaller and more private affair. But when America embarked on its great mid-20th-century expansion to mass (and increasingly, federally financed) higher education, small nonprofit accreditors with no formal governmental authority were given the keys to the federal financial-aid kingdom and asked to protect the interests of students and taxpayers alike. It is a job they weren't built for, and they are increasingly feeling the strain.

When for-profit higher-education corporations hoover up hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid while granting degrees of questionable value, their accreditors get blamed. When studies like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift call the extent of college-student learning into question, accreditors are denounced for not enforcing academic standards. When some public institutions post graduation rates in the midteens, year after year, accreditors are charged with abetting failure.

Too often, accreditors react to criticism with a defensive crouch. So it's been gratifying to watch one regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, or WASC, take a different approach in recent weeks, setting an example for others to follow.



The Long Slow Death of No Child Left Behind

Eleven years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work on education. The liberal think tank that hired me focused on state issues, so I had nothing to do with the project that was consuming D.C. wonks at the time: a once-a-decade reauthorization of the mammoth federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would become the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. I didn’t quite appreciate the scale of it until late September, when a refugee from the anthrax attack on the Hart Senate Office building decamped in our conference room and described the cabinets of notes, research, analysis, and draft legislation he had been forced to abandon until the building could be properly flooded with cleansing poison gas.

Somehow, they managed to finish the bill anyway. In hindsight, many gave credit to the brief post-9/11 spirit of proving that the people’s work would not be halted by terrorists, foreign or domestic. But the NCLB was also the product of an historic and unlikely communion between President George W. Bush, who at the time still held a vestige of his “compassionate conservative” mantle, and Senator Edward Kennedy, whose family involvement with ESEA dated back to Robert Kennedy’s role in writing the original bill in 1965. Both men genuinely believed in the idea of administering annual standardized tests to schoolchildren and holding schools accountable for the results. Schools would be judged by escalating performance targets that reached 100 percent proficiency in 2014, with serious consequences for those that fell short. NCLB passed Congress with 91 votes in the Senate and 384 in the House.

A year later, I went to work at the Education Trust, an advocacy organization that played a key role in writing NCLB. The organization’s leaders were civil rights veterans who saw the law as the next step in a movement that began with Brown v. Board. There was still a lot of optimism in those early years; Bush hadn’t reached the point of maximum polarization, and NCLB was still a few years away from becoming toxic shorthand for all educational grievances, large and small.

But when we dug into the details of NCLB implementation, there were already troubling signs. While the law marked a high water mark of federal control over K-12 education, it was still, relatively speaking, not far from the ocean floor. NCLB gave states vast discretion to set standards, choose tests, and decide what test scores would yield a passing grade. The technicalities of the law’s accountability regime created openings for ruthlessly inventive state bureaucrats to excuse their low-performing schools from scrutiny and sanction. Teachers unions that had been excluded from the negotiating table began waging an increasingly public fight against the law. States-rights Republicans did the same.

Fast-forward to this month, when the New York Times reported that a majority of states had received permission from the U.S. Department of Education to waive the law’s accountability requirements. Support for NCLB in Congress has collapsed; a vote today would probably yield as many “No” votes as there were “Yeas” in 2001. But because Congress circa 2012 is historically inept at passing important legislation, and the politics of school reform remain knotted in larger debates about federalism, unionism, and money, the next version of ESEA is four years overdue. So the Obama administration has used its regulatory discretion to reauthorize the law by fiat, exempting states that sign on to its agenda from the requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

As NCLB slowly dies from a combination of Congressional inattention, regulatory whittling, and the sheer weight of public rejection, it’s worth asking why so much of the optimism surrounding the law proved unfounded, and what those who still believe in federal intervention on behalf of disadvantaged students should do next.



How Status Anxiety Doomed the University of Virginia

Many public universities are suffering these days, wracked by budget cuts and struggling to bring enough students through the door. The University of Virginia isn’t one of them. A $5 billion endowment makes it the wealthiest public university, per capita, in the United States. Over 28,000 students applied for admission last year, a record high. The stately campus, a classic of red brick and white colonnade, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thomas Jefferson’s founding spirit lives on.

So it was all the more shocking when UVA’s governing body, the Board of Visitors, unceremoniously sacked university president Teresa Sullivan last week, less than two years into her tenure. Such abrupt changes are almost unheard-of at an institution of Virginia’s stature (Sullivan’s predecessor had served 20 years) and usually stem from scandal. Yet the public statements of Helen Dragas, a wealthy condominium developer and the board leader (or “Rector”), referred only to the need for things like “bold and proactive leadership” and a “faster pace of change” in justifying the firing.

At UVA, reaction to the decision was almost uniformly negative. As the subsequent week progressed, outrage mounted among students, faculty, and the university’s vast network of loyal alumni. No-confidence votes were taken, donations rescinded, and faculty positions resigned. UVA’s good name was tainted by national news stories portraying a university in crisis and disarray. Faculty are now openly questioning whether to serve a new leader at all.

It has been an epic public relations blunder of the kind that savvy, highly-professional elite universities hardly ever commit. The Board of Visitors was apparently so frightened by the future that they threw one the nation’s most august institutions of higher learning into a deliberate tailspin. What, exactly, were they scared of? And what does it mean for other, seemingly-invulnerable institutions like UVA?



Here's a Diploma, With Ball and Chain Attached

Frogs, as everyone has heard, will sit quietly in a pot of steadily warming water until they are boiled alive. This is not actually true. In reality, frogs will jump out of the pot as soon as it gets too hot, because scalding water hurts like hell. Similarly, anxiety about student-loan debt has reached a boiling point over the past year, and the American public seems increasingly inclined to bail out of the higher-education system.

The first signs appeared last fall, held above the heads of Occupy protesters who saw their indenture to banks as an intergenerational betrayal. "I went to college like I was told I should, and now I owe $45,000, $80,000, $125,000, in a ruined economy with no jobs to be found," they said. The numbers were designed to shock, and they did, appearing on newscasts and Web petitions nationwide.