Fighting City Hall: Is It Worth It?

Richard J. Bishirjian

A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education for April 19 featured Yorktown University in reference to regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) for all but public colleges and universities. The story reports how Yorktown University, under current standards in place at the Higher Learning Council, will be blocked from attaining “North Central” accreditation. And the story references “Issue #5” from recent negotiated rule-making meetings conducted by the Department.

Issue #5 is summarized here:

State Authorization as a Component of Institutional Eligibility (Issue 5). USDE is seeking to define what constitutes state authorization of an institution to operate and grant certifications or degrees for Title IV eligibility. The proposed regulatory language calls for states to monitor institutions to assure academic quality, which may or may not involve accrediting organizations. For accreditors, this raises questions about the potential for overlap and confusion of activities and responsibilities among the federal government, states and accrediting organizations.

What constitutes “state authorization”?

According to the Higher Learning Council’s legal counsel, state authorization—a license to operate granted by a state—is triggered when an institution has a representative in a state or even uses a state-based Proctor.

So Yorktown University, if it enrolls a student domiciled in any of the fifty states, must make application for a license to operate from that state.

But even traditional private bricks and mortar institutions that increasingly are offering degree programs online will have to obtain licenses to operate in states where students are domiciled other than their home state.

Commerce of any kind thrives when conditions are stable.  If instability destabilizes commerce, then there is a decline in commercial transactions.  During the Bush Administration, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings destabilized higher education by manipulating a little known agency of the Department with the authority to charter accrediting associations.

In December 2006, Yorktown University was prepared for a site visit by the American Academy of Liberal Education (AALE) when the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) did not renew AALE’s charter. At the same time NACIQI issued a warning to the American Bar Association and to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) that they too were under scrutiny.  In WASC’s case, WASC was seen to be inattentive to the need to assess whether students of member institutions were achieving learning outcomes of courses of instruction.

Immediately the entire education establishment became obsessed with “learning assessment” policies.  Even WASC has begun to offer seminars in learning assessments.  In our case, we engaged in a fight with the Department of Education in an attempt to regain AALE’s charter and argue against “educationist” requirements that we assess the learning outcomes of our students.  I discussed the reasons why I opposed this assault on higher education by federal regulators in Academic Questions.[1]

Peter Wood assisted in briefing members of Congress and their staffs at a special meeting we conducted in the Capitol building.  Within a week of that briefing, the U.S. Department of Education gave provisional renewal of AALE’s charter.

By then, however, we changed our requirements and made application for accreditation of our programs by the Distance Education and Training Council.  The delay in attaining accreditation in 2007 from AALE cost about $250,000 calculated in terms of lost revenue and diversion of staff time from normal operations to tracking what Margaret Spellings would do next to destroy Liberal Arts education.

We are now facing another period of instability that will be costly in terms of the costs of compliance, or, if we fight the Department and the Higher Learning Council, the costs of non-compliance.

Members of NAS who teach at traditional private colleges and universities may not see the danger in new licensing requirements.  After all, the pressure of competition from low cost proprietary Internet providers is uncomfortable.  And they may suspect that many of the degree programs that these for-profit institutions offer are watered down.  After all, how can students complete a full course of study in 5 or 6 weeks?  The whole Internet industry is suspect for lowering higher education standards and threatening the traditions of tenured employment.

Well, clearly there is some truth to all of this.

But here is what NAS members should consider:

  1. Many bricks and mortar institutions have already begun to offer online degree programs that attract students domiciled in other states
  2.  A growing Internet education industry requires instructors and is the one sector in the education marketplace that is hiring.
  3. The cost of founding, licensing and accrediting an Internet institution is less than $1 to $2 million.  In the future, many “boutique” accredited programs will be created to meet specialized demand.
  4. Competition is good.  We may not like it, but competition forces us to focus on costs. As a result, your institution can become stronger.
  5. Higher education is changing.  When a good sectarian or liberal arts college charges $22,000 a year for room and board, those colleges are pricing themselves out of the marketplace.  Placing your institutional head in the sand and refusing to utilize new technologies with lower tuition costs will not regain market share.
  6. Higher education has watered down a college education already by dissolving the required “core” curriculum.
  7. An education landscape composed solely of public institutions will make American higher education like that in Mexico, or, even worse, France and Germany or England.

Richard J. Bishirjian is president of Yorktown University.

[1]“Difficult Labor: The Perils of Birthing a New College,” Academic Questions,(2009) 22:284–297. 

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