By Richard Vedder
An excellent blog by my colleague Daniel Bennett triggered some thoughts. Daniel told of a new on-line open source "university" that will offer courses for free. For a long time, I have marveled at Wikipedia, an on-line encyclopedia with formidable numbers of entries and lots of information that is absolutely free, "authored" by thousands of free volunteers who provide their knowledge for the joy of knowing that others will enjoy their contributions. To be sure, quality is uneven, just as it is in any university where there are stellar professors, along with some real dogs.
Just as there are people who are nasty and use the Internet for destructive purposes, creating viruses and damaging innocent lives, there are others who are kind and altruistic, who do good deeds for no compensation. They set up entire operating systems for public use, offerlng their knowledge free-of-charge. Why not take the Wikipedia approach of providing vast amounts of free knowledge and devise a Wikipedia University? I bet there are persons willing to devise parts or all of courses, to develop examinations, to evaluate student participants - all for the satisfaction of helping others.
To be sure, for many students, learning is only a small part of the university experience. College is part learning, part recreation, part socialization. The free Internet U is not for them. But for many others it could prove a great idea.
How would one accredit an university that has no employees? Or maybe the better question is: WHY accredit such a school? Its validity and quality would be determined by the extent of its use and the willingness of employers to accept its diplomas as legitimate.
And that brings up another point. Why doesn't the private sector start its own accreditation mechanism that evaluates schools on their success in meeting employer needs, rather than on such things as the number of Ph.D.s on the faculty or the number of books in the library? Why don't they devise standardized tests of college graduates that would help them learn whether students know anything (something the schools are afraid to learn by using their own graduation tests)? If you want to go to work for XYZ Corporation, suppose you must take a standardized test devised by, say, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Average scores on such exams, classified by college of attendance of the exam takers, could be useful in generally evaluating the effectiveness of colleges.
The shameful gaming of the US News ranking system by Baylor is just the latest example how schools are currently doing crazy things (giving the SAT test to already admitted students) to gain a false advantage on a flawed rankings measure. An external examination approach is one way to deal with it, and if students at unaccredited Wikipedia U (or whatever its name is) do well on the US Chamber test, employers may hire them. The heck what the Accreditation Cartel or US News says. Is it plausible? Yes. Would you have predicted the ready availability of a totally free encyclopedia, say 15 years ago?...Probably not!