Monday, November 22, 2010

On Transparency (Or the Lack Thereof)

by Jonathan Robe

The other day Richard Vedder participated in a panel discussion at the University of Michigan on the topic of for-profit education. One of the other panelists, Thomas Howlett, a lawyer who has litigated claims on behalf of students against for-profit colleges, had some pointed criticisms for the sector. According to the U of M student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, Howlett
has noticed five crucial problems with for-profit institutions: accreditation, transfer of credits, program costs, the admissions process and enrollment. These five issues, he said, can be summed up as a “lack of transparency.” “These problems, while they exist, are not clear to the student who is making the decision to enroll and commit thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars to these programs,” Howlett said.
The problem with what Howlett is quoted as saying isn't that it is not correct; it's that it's only half the story. The "lack of transparency" problem is by no means unique to for-profits; it is a systemic problem throughout all of higher education, non-profit and for-profit alike. Every single one of the five elements Howlett gave as problems in the for-profit sector can also be given as problems with both the not-for-profit private and the public sectors.

This last point was brought home recently by Jorge Klor de Alva, a former president of the University of Phoenix who is currently running the NEXUS Research & Policy Center. According to Doug Lederman at InsideHigherEd, Klor de Alva discussed the subject of higher ed transparency at a meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. As Lederman puts it, there was
general agreement that for-profit colleges aren't the only ones that loathe relinquishing data about their performance ("If we were to rank who hoards information more, I'd begin with independent colleges, then for-profits, then publics -- but only because they're forced to" release it, Klor de Alva said).
It's hard to say at this point exactly what the final result will be of all the recent public scrutiny of the for-profits, but if our calls for more transparency from colleges focuses only on one single sector to the exclusion of the others, we're missing the mark.

1 comment:

Glen S. McGhee said...

The lack of transparency regarding accreditation is equal for both for-profits AND the public schools.

Accreditation in this country began over one-hundred years ago, starting with the University of Michigan "accrediting" its feeder high schools so that graduating high school students from accredited high schools could gain admission on the basis of their earned diplomas, and would not have to take entrance exams in classical subjects, as was then the case in the northeast (1875).

The benefits of this arrangement were soon realized, and trade associations for the benefit of the member colleges and universities formed, such as the North Central Association. As a voluntary association, like a mutual benefit association, these groups were successful at stabilizing their institutional environments, having legislation in their favor passed, and expanding their professional reach -- all of which mark accrediting associations as guilds of higher education.

But, as Adam Smith observed, tradesmen and merchants cannot gather at the local coffee house or pub without conspiring in some way and doing an injury to the public.

Likewise, Thomas Hobbes wrote caustically in *Leviathan* (1651) against the guilds, which he called "many lesser Common-wealths in the bowels of a greater [one], like wormes in the entrayles of a naturall man," to his detriment. The University, of course, was the chief guild in this respect, and nothing has changed much in the long stretch of time since then.