The Watchdogs of College Education Rarely Bite (The Wall Street Journal)
The Journal uses plenty of data to talk about a dimension of the college graduation/loan default rate conversation that has seemed to have been left alone until now: accreditation. Although it lays blame without really laying blame, the article offers several statistics on how many colleges accreditors have closed, and what the graduation and loan default rates are at those colleges they haven't.
I still see a line between correlation and causation that is too blurry for my own comfort when we start talking about college performance and graduation or loan default rates. Accreditation is a healthy addition to that blur since it reveals some of the hard realities about higher education in a new context.
Accreditation should--should--be about the quality of the curricula, instruction, and assessment of learning. That's the extent, ultimately, that colleges can control and that's, ultimately, the essence of a college. The other pieces involved (enrollment, retention, institutional advancement, even efforts to improve academic success and graduation) should feed into that primary purpose, and more or less rely on someone else to make them work. Optimists like me have a tendency to hold that as truth and at the core of our very professional teaching selves.
In reality, the fundamental concern is about money. In reality, the quality of the education should correlate with, but not cause, graduation or a well-paying job to repay student loans. In reality, there are myriad other variables that we need to factor into if a student graduates and subsequently gets a well-paying job. It appears that the accreditation agencies at least attempt to make decisions holistically and recognize that numbers "don't tell the whole story" as the article quotes.
But the accreditors' behaviors, as demonstrated in the article, exhibit some of the traditional ways of thinking that higher education needs to start moving away from to adapt to a changing reality. The accrediting agencies seem to promote a separation between higher education and everyone else and refuse the public's changing perception of the value of a college education. The Internet and the technologies we use to access it has given us the ability to both distribute and retrieve information (sometimes more than we want or should) whenever and wherever we want; the very act of making information unavailable in the face of these circumstances means perhaps even more than the data itself. The number of reports available on the high school-college-workforce gaps have made it clear that smoothing the transitions through collaboration and common goals is vital to progressing more students through that sequence successfully. Instead of working across lines, accrediting bodies appear to want to keep higher education apart from other institutions and agencies, specifically in terms of evaluation: "The accreditors say self-oversight is the best way to protect quality in higher education, because academics have the necessary expertise and frame of reference to judge quality." This suggests a level of mistrust, a fixed mindset, and a sort of elitist self-image. The kind of blind trust and rigid position in society reflected in these actions and that higher education has become comfortable with--if not dependent upon--continues to work against the institution and these goals of a better life for our students.
If we want to keep talking about how to graduate more students from college and avoid mountains of meaningless debt, we need to take a realistic look at higher education as a whole. We need to keep searching for variables instead of where to place blame; we need to find that balance between numbers and stories; and we need to let down those shields and sit together at the table.
How to Better Serve Returning Adult Students (Inside Higher Ed)
Taking a good, long look at who the students in higher education are is Step #1 in that reality check. The link in this Quick Take from Insidehighered.com refers to a report suggestion some policy changes that would better serve returning adult students. The report focuses mostly on college students who had enrolled in college but left after at least one term without earning a credential. This is a great Step #1 since most reports only use first-time, full-time students in their data counts.
Recognizing that these students make up a significant portion of the student population--and a potentially larger one--is important in fulfilling this goal of educating and graduating students into a well-paying job and better life. We know that students need to identify with the college, to feel that they fit in, to know that someone was thinking about them when they set forth the support systems and processes to navigate. The suggestions in the report follow one common theme: flexibility. Breaking apart the rigidity and opening up our perspective is crucial to doing our part in delivering education, and will allow us to do so for more students as well.