Monday, December 10, 2007

The Edict of Nantes Approach to Academic Peace

By Richard Vedder

In 1598, the King of France ended decades of religious wars by issuing the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing Protestants certain rights of property and freedom from legal harassment (it is interesting how bits of western civ. courses taken nearly a half a century ago come to mind). Recently, warring factions (colleges and accreditation organizations) met to reach a near-truce on a battle over the question: who is going to determine whether colleges and universities are meeting goals regarding the academic accomplishments of students. While each wants control, what they fear most is for neither of them to determine academic success, and that standards control would pass into the hands of the Common Enemy, namely the U.S. Department of Education. So the Establishment Educrats are trying to read a modern name equivalent of the Edict of Nantes, giving some power to the accreditors (the Protestants of old), while retaining much power in the hands of the universities (the Catholics of late 16th century France).

The good news here is that everyone at least rhetorically accepts the Spellings Commission plea that measures of value added during college be developed, and that these measures should have consequences. To me, it is insane to have the colleges police themselves. The U.S. Department of Education is a group least beholden to the college constituencies.

I suspect the following will happen. The colleges and accreditors will make a deal. Colleges will set their own measures of success, but accreditors will have a big role in determining whether success has been made in meeting standards. The U.S. Department of Education will be told to stay out of it. Universities will set mushy standards and little substantively will happen to measure whether students are learning anything while in school. The parents will be as clueless as favor as to whether the schools their kids are applying to add value to their children's lives.

I hope my cynicism is unwarranted. Time will tell. If we can get data on learning out of schools, we can let private vendors disseminate it, as they will gladly do, to help information-starved parents and students make better college choices.

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