Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Underwriters Laboratories/Consumer Report/Standard and Poors Approach to Accreditation

By Richard Vedder

This is the second of a series of three blogs on accreditation. I welcome comments, as I will probably read from the comments at the American Enterprise Institute conference being held Friday in DC in collaboration with CCAP.

When you buy a toaster, computer or television set, you can derive some comfort that the product will not injure you electrically, if the product has the UL label on it, standing for Underwriters Laboratories, an independent organization that, I believe, is funded by insurance companies. Should we turn college certification over to Underwriters Laboratories, or to a new independent organization funded by the people who make loans to students? Can we have something akin to the Good Housekeeping magazine Seal of Approval for education programs? The organization would be run by professionals who would use consistent standards to assure fairness in evaluating colleges. Emphasis would be on testing the product provided --by gathering information on student performance in school (what they learned), growth of critical learning facility (through devices such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment), their degree of involvement in their studies and community (through tests like the National Survey of Student Engagement), their post-graduation vocational success (and, with the cooperation of the Social Security Administration, their average S.S. earnings after graduation), etc. Receiving the approval of this organization would be required before students could take federally subsidized loans, or for the school to receive federal tax exempt status. There would be one national organization, not seven regional accrediting bodies. The standards in Illinois would be the same as they are in Florida or California.

A variant on this would be to move towards the way Consumer Union tests products and reports on results in Consumer Reports. An organization (profit or not-for-profit --it is not important in my way of thinking) could be created, again funded by those wanting to help finance higher education, that would issue reports on each school, how they rate on various criteria (graduation rates, costs, campus crime rates, gains in scores on a test like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute exam on civic knowledge), etc. The organization would list "best buys" "fewest dropouts" "largest percentage graduating in 4 years" "most satisfied students" etc. Colleges wanting students to be eligible for federal financial assistance would be required to participate in helping provide information, most of which would come from the students themselves. Again, the provisions of Social Security post-graduate earnings information would be a valuable piece of additional information. This approach would NOT have the "pass-fail" dimension of the UL approach above --the idea is simply to provide more and better information than the US News & World Report currently provides.

A third variant is to use some variant of the bond rating model. Standard and Poors, Moodys and Fitch rate bonds for the risks associated with holding them. Perhaps we could have student rating agencies that would give grades to the quality of the final product--from AAA to CCC, or some such evaluations. This could be done at the institutional level ---graduates of Grinnell College on average are BBB, or on an individual student basis, requiring student-specific as well as institutional specific information be submitted to the rating agency, along with probably the results of a national standardized exit exam administered to each student. I have a feeling such an approach would show employers some startling things, such as students graduating from so-called middle-quality institutions are often as good as those educated in the Ivy League (for that reason, of course, the elite schools would fight this idea to the death). Still, it is food for thought.

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