Sen. Lee Brings a Dose of Creative Destruction to Higher Education

Over the past several decades technology has transformed nearly everything. Shelves of books can be condensed down onto a device no larger than a paperback. Music that was once etched in vinyl or burned onto CDs are now simply downloaded onto credit card-sized gadgets. And computers, which were once the size of entire rooms, can now fit in our pockets.

Despite the revolutionary change the model for higher education has remained largely untouched for over a century. It consists of a wizened professor standing front of a classroom talking to a group of students in a red brick building situated on a lush green quad. The biggest “innovation” is that students now type their notes on laptops rather than write them in notebooks, a tweak that could hardly be described as ground-breaking.

Part of the problem is that the forces currently in control of accrediting our colleges and universities have come to expect that staid model. Jordan Weissmann explains the problem for Slate:

In order for their students to receive federal aid, colleges and vocational programs need to be accredited. The accrediting agencies, which are independent of the government, mostly give their blessing to schools that look an awful lot like traditional institutions of higher education, with brick-and-mortar buildings, well-credentialed faculty, and a nice mission statement. (No sarcasm intended: They really do care about mission statements.) Sure, these schools might offer online courses. But for the most part, the argument goes, the accreditation process helps perpetuate a fairly expensive model for students and prevents any radical and inexpensive experiments from lifting off. That’s both because almost nothing in higher ed can survive without some access to federal aid dollars—even if students are enrolled in free programs, they need to cover living expenses—and because other colleges won’t accept transfer credits from nonaccredited institutions.

In other words – colleges need federal dollars to compete with their well-heeled brethren, but the only way to get the cash is to be accredited, and the only way to get that nice sheet of paper is to fit in the cookie-cutter mold of what already exists, in no small part because the people doing the accrediting are generally faculty from another stick-in-the-mud institution.

That causes two problems: (1) Colleges become box-checking entities that are more focused on having the requisite number of books in their library (a factor in accreditation) than educating students or training them for the workforce and (2) Colleges act allowed to engage in cartel behavior, in that they can create arbitrary barriers to entry for competitors, especially those that utilize innovative models.

Fortunately, Sen. Mike Lee, among other Republicans, has a solution. He writes for The Federalist:

The answer is to make more kinds of students and more kinds of education eligible for them.

So last week, I introduced legislation to do just that.

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 participation would be totally voluntary, and would in no way interfere with the current system. 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.

This could allow progress-minded states to do all sorts of things. Massive open online courses—which are already being spearheaded by institutions like MIT and Yale—could become a legitimate option for students. Apple, Boeing, or Ford could create their own in-house educational options to train future employees in the skills they need. Or competency-based learning options that allow students to make progress when they demonstrate mastery of content regardless of time, place or pace could take hold.

The bottom line is that higher education needs a dose of creative destruction and a dab of competition. Only then can true market competition take hold and force institutions of higher learning to vie for students based on price and quality.