Friday, April 16, 2010

Bishirjian's Lament

By Richard Vedder

Dick Bishirjian is an unusual university president. He is blunt, outspoken, not afraid of controversy, and no doubt offensive to some precisely because he does not speak the diplomatic, politically correct blather than emanates so predictably from the mouths of university leaders. I like him a lot. He runs a for-profit online school, Yorktown University, and is constantly fighting for the right to operate.

Lately, Dick's emails have centered on his trials and tribulations before the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the university accrediting arm of the largest of the regional accreditors, the North Central Association. As I understand it, the HLC is threatening to sanction accredited schools that cannot demonstrate that they have licenses to operate in every state in which they have students. Thus a small online school like Yorktown, with perhaps students in 10-15 states under HLC jurisdiction, may have to hire lawyers, etc., to file paperwork in all of those states in order to do business. Another great higher education entrepreneur, Randy Best, once told me that barriers to entry imposed by regulations (e.g., accreditation) was one of the single largest obstacles to offering truly low cost quality college education in America. I thought Randy was exaggerating a bit, but after reading Dick's laments I am coming to realize that he is right on target.

It is all ridiculous. It is bad enough that we have seven regional accreditors instead of one national one, and the operating rules in, say, California or Florida probably differ from those in Illinois. It is worse that the cost of acquiring accreditation is a serious barrier to entry for modestly capitalized firms, some of which have interesting and innovative curricular concepts. But now to think that state governments can add their costly and educationally meaningless barriers on top of all that is particularly infuriating.

What to do? I think people like Dick should ban together with a good public interest law firm like the Institute for Justice and challenge this type of regulation on constitutional grounds --a violation of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S.Constitution. As Dick points out, the FTC has told states they cannot regulate internet sales of eyeware products, presumably on those constitutional grounds. Courts have looked with disfavor on attempts of states to forbid interstate importation of liquor. It is time to challenge this type of regulation.

Meeting recently with the CEO of one of the nation's largest for-profit providers, I was told that accreditation on balance has little impact --its costs are offset by its benefits, providing sort of a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval" to reliable and reputable deliverers of higher education services. The big guys, though, can endure spending a few million dollars to overcome the duplication inanities of the bureaucrats. This gives them an unfair advantage over the Dick Bishirjian's of the world, who are trying to obtain the scale of operation that makes internet-based higher education profitable. Let's level the playing field.

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