By Richard Vedder
Who should take the lead role in evaluating whether universities are performing their mission, or, better yet, the missions that society expects them to perform? The schools themselves? The U.S. Department of Education? Regional accreditation agencies? State and local governments and oversight agencies, such as Boards of Regents?
At least the question is being asked, and in a messy way, probably will be answered in the next few months or years. The fact that we are even talking about performance standards is a step forward, one heavily promoted by the Spellings Commission. Are colleges succeeding or failing in meeting their mission? Who knows? We do little to measure "value added" during the college years.
Enter the U.S. Department of Education. Impatient with what they view as lax, overly chummy accreditation standards, the Department moved last spring to set tough standards for the accreditors themselves. Both the accreditors and various establishment college organizations yelled foul, ran to their favorite congressmen and congresswomen, and blocked the Department's move.
As the Higher Education Act reauthorization proceeded, the college lobbyists managed, to the chagrin of many (including myself), to put the performance assessment matter squarely in the hands of colleges themselves. The accreditors watched, somewhat dismayed, and finally did something about it, getting a last minute change in the legislation when the college lobbyists were apparently having their Gucci shoes shined. It was a vintage, classic back door political machination of the type that at times make me wonder if I would rather be governed by the first 535 names in, say, the Paris telephone directory than the Congress of the United States. The new House standard gives considerable power to the accrediting organizations, who are now at something of a war with college groups like the American Council of Education.
My view? Primary evaluation of colleges should be done by outsiders. Consumer Reports rates car companies; Underwriter Laboratories evaluates the safety of electrical equipment. Respected, outside agencies do the job. I have some reservations about the accreditors doing the job, since they tend to be very cozy with the colleges, who provide most of the staffing used in evaluations. There has been little substantive move to clear "value added" measures required under the watch of accreditors. However, I understand some of the reluctance to turn things over to the Educrats on Maryland Avenue (U.S. Department of Education). Why not compromise --and turn it over to everyone --have mountains of data published on college performance that any enterprising entrepreneur (e.g., US News & World Report, J.D. Powers and Associates) could bundle into easy to understand aggregate measures of performance which are then sold or given away to the general public? Just a thought.