The face of higher education is changing rapidly. Many of these changes are unsettling; institutions of higher learning are increasingly corporatized, run like businesses and also for businesses. Many universities are becoming little more than research assistants for corporate America, which profits grandly from research carried out by institutions funded with taxpayer money.
Another troubling development is the near-exclusive association between a university education and employment. Obviously this has always been one of the main reasons for seeking a college degree, but there was a time, not so long ago, when you also went to college to find yourself intellectually, to find or create your values, and to acquire the experience and learning that allows one to make one’s way intelligently in the world.
All that is changing. These days one never hears about college except in terms of job training. The one exception to that is the anti-intellectual wing of conservative politics refers to colleges as “elitist” or “destroying values” or whatever. The whole intellectual awakening thing is invisible, even forgotten. One also hears more and more about business practices entering the conduct of universities. “Students” are now “customers” –who are always right. That brings its own problems in tow. But the excesses and machinations of the corporate world have become commonplace: witness how students are placed under crushing debts that they can’t pay, and can’t discharge through bankruptcy. Student loan debt is now larger than credit card debt in the US. Think about that for a second. Much of this debt was created using less than ethical or even legal means, but we’re all used to that by now.
That said, there are some refreshing changes, too. People are starting to see the problems with the current system just at the time when some intriguing alternatives have appeared.
The first of these is the free university course. This really all started when MIT put all of their courses online for free. Anyone can access them, read the syllabi, in many case watch recorded lectures on video, follow the readings. They just can’t get a grade or credit for their work. Other universities have followed suit. Now you can even get free college courses through iTunes on (what else?) iTunes University.
The next development is the rise of open source textbooks. This is a natural response to the insanely overpriced textbooks used in college courses that can cost thousands of dollars for students already strapped for cash. The State of California recently passed legislation mandating that the UC system make every effort to use open source textbooks for courses, and also funded the development of some 50 such texts.
So, it is now possible to take a college course for free. Admittedly, the completion rate is low. Abysmal, in fact. That’s hardly surprising, since most people signing up aren’t in a social support structure that pushes them to finish the way a university campus does. Nor is there a diploma or even credit at the end of the course. But the textbooks are also, increasingly, free.
But something interesting is happening in spite of that. Anecdotal evidence is starting to percolate out that individuals have taken these classes, finished them, added them to a resume, and gotten a job based in part on that qualification, sans transcript, credit, diploma, or accreditation.
Accreditation is a big deal, but what is it, exactly? Briefly put, it is an off-the-shelf reputation conferred upon schools who can answer the demand, “Prove to me you know how to run a university” based on standards set by the accrediting body. Schools seeking this indispensible imprimatur submit a lengthy Self-Evaluation Review (SER) and then jump through a number of other costly, time-consuming hoops before they can qualify for accreditation.
In the past, accreditation has done much to strengthen the university system, but lately I’ve started having doubts. Regional accreditation in particular seems more and more like an extended exercise in posturing by the accreditors, demanding more and more absurd measurements, reports, and requirements, all the while never missing an opportunity to remind hopeful institutions that they are really the ones in charge. If the territory-marking were any more blatant, they’d be peeing on the furniture.
Worse, to my mind, is the growing sense that regional accreditors tend to favor for-profit schools, which I now regard as a true abomination, likely to do for higher education what for-profit health insurance did for the health care system.
But to get back to our question of free college courses and texts, much of the accreditation process—most of it, in fact—centers on things like tuition, refund policies, student loans, the financial health of the university, cash reserves, accounting practices, etc. With free courses and texts, all that goes away, leaving only matters like course rigor, teacher qualifications, etc.
So here is my question: is there a way to develop an open-source accrediting system that would garner sufficient trust that someone could be considered in the same category as someone who has a traditional degree and diploma if they managed to complete a comparable number and type of courses? Once upon a time, an open-source encyclopedia was considered impossible, but that has changed. I particularly like the idea of open-source accreditation because this model has proven able to resist many of the ills of private, corporate counterparts while delivering high levels of quality.
Here’s another angle to consider. There is, in a sense, already something like this that people use every day. It’s called a resume. Think about it. This is a statement of what you have done; experience, projects, education, etc., that serves the same basic function as a diploma. Most employers don’t feel the need to see your diploma, let alone your transcripts. Resumes aren’t subject to any kind of accreditation, although if you lie on your resume and get caught, the consequences can be unfortunate—as they should be.
Open-source accreditation might take the form of a reputation service that rates online courses offered by whomever wants to offer one. They might even confer some kind of certification if certain requirements are met. While “degrees” are usually regulated by state law, certificates are not. And even degrees don’t have to be accredited to be “real,” it’s just that you probably won’t be able to, for instance, use a non-accredited bachelor’s degree to get into an accredited master’s program.
There are any number of ways this could work, but I think it might be an idea whose time has come. If nothing else, perhaps we can break the stranglehold that business has placed on our universities, choking the intellectual vitality out of them. Who knows? It might even lead to a whole new culture of higher learning.