Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Chartering a Course for Higher Ed

A colleague just attended the negotiated rulemaking committee's deliberations to ultimately implement the Higher Education Opportunity Act (2008). The meeting was reported on in InsideHigherEd (IHE) here, and is summarized by a CHEA letter here, which she forwarded to me.

The current process is apparently not at the DefCon 4 status that the Spellings Commission created with its force-feeding of ideology and intrusive monitoring agenda--an atmosphere the IHE article terms "poisoned." They also describe the outcome of this overreaching:
The perceived overstepping by the Education Department led Congress to step in to block the education secretary from promulgating rules on accreditation, and in renewing the Higher Education Act last summer, lawmakers barred the Education Department from issuing regulations going forward that are designed to ensure that colleges are measuring student learning outcomes.
This act was in large part due to the efforts of Senator Lamar Alexander. At the same time, Sen. Alexander had made it clear that innovation in higher education is called for. In a Feb. 10 article in IHE he is quoted as suggesting a three-year bachelor's degree. This is an interesting idea that deserves some comment.

On the actual merits of what the addition of three-year bachelor's-type programs could add to the educational mix, I cannot speak. As a past SACS liaison, however, it curdles my blood to think of the effort involved to make such a thing reality. Last month an email on a from Belle Wheelan, President of SACS, was circulated. The subject was the integrity of so-called 3+1 programs, which the accreditor describes as a combination of 90 credits at a two-year institution plus 30 at the finishing (four-year) school. There are apparently five standards from The Principles of Accreditation that are in question here, from questions about transfer credit to the efficacy of the general education curriculum. ?Pres. Wheelan also notes that programmatic accreditors (for Music, Education, Engineering, etc.) will also need to be consulted to give their approval. My perception of the tone of the email is "well, we can't stop you from doing this, but be prepared for a long hard slog." Herein lies the rub.

Academic Administration is not an engine of innovation. Given the stack of regulations to be followed (Sen. Alexander apparently shows off of stack of five boxes of them) and the accreditation processes to be followed in order to make any substantive change--a term that leaves little wiggle room for unapproved changes--the amount of energy that would be required on the part of any administration to create a three-year bachelor's program is mind-boggling. Real innovation requires the ability to play, in order to see what works and what does not. It requires the ability to fail. But accreditors demand success, and usually assume that one can plan one's way to every higher goals if one only has enough assessment data. Peer review committees are naturally suspicious of anything new, and despite efforts in the last decade to change the tone of accreditation visits from "gotcha" events to something more helpful, little has really changed. It's a process guaranteed to be conservative and laden with inertia.

This is not to say that it can't be done. But an institution has to be particularly well led, well funded, and connected. In essence, it needs a 'bye' from the usual processes in order to do anything truly innovative. This is similar to the concept of a charter school.

So here's my proposal. Select a group of volunteer institutions, which are to innovate. Release them from all but the most important requirements on reporting, energy-sapping regulation, and most importantly pre-approval from the accreditors. Just like charter schools, let them go out an create new things. Five or ten years later, take a look at the results; in the meantime leave them alone. This would do two things. First, it would allow for much freer innovation, which is potentially valuable for its own sake. Secondly it would create a perspective on the rules and processes that regulate higher education. If these 'charter schools' succeed despite the lessened requirements, then perhaps we didn't really need all those expensive layers of review, reporting, and approval that currently exist. Wouldn't that be interesting...

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