Before his death, Thomas Jefferson drafted his own epitaph. He wanted to be remembered for three achievements: writing the Declaration of Independence, writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—and founding the University of Virginia.
Jefferson believed that an educated citizenry was the surest safeguard against tyranny and the means to a more prosperous nation. For two decades he labored to create a public institution of advanced learning in his home state. When the University finally opened its doors in 1818, Jefferson considered it one of his finest contributions to the new Republic.
“This institution,” he wrote, “will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Could Jefferson have founded the University of Virginia under our current higher education system? Not likely.
Originally, the University of Virginia was supported entirely by private charity, tuition fees, and Virginia taxpayers. Today, the majority of public funding available for higher education comes from the federal government, which doled out $76 billion in financial aid and institutional research grants in 2013. With 72% of full-time college students relying on some form of federal financial aid, most institutions can’t survive without access to federal money. But to be eligible for federal funds, an institution must make it past the accreditation bureaucracy.
Once, accreditation was just a seal of quality assurance offered by competing private agencies, much like a Michelin star or Zagat grade in the restaurant world. But then President Lyndon Johnson’s Higher Education Act of 1965 made accreditation the gateway to federal funds, including Title IV grants and low-interest loans for individual students. Today, the majority of America’s nearly 4,500 colleges and universities are accredited by one of six regional accrediting bodies. And since private accrediting agencies in turn have to be accredited by the Department of Education, the federal government has effectively monopolized accreditation and given itself an enormous amount of control over colleges and universities. The result is a de facto cartel in higher education that curbs innovation and threatens the autonomy of our schools.
A college can easily spend more than $1 million on a routine accreditation review. This costly entrance fee favors established brick-and-mortar universities with large endowments, and inhibits the creation of new colleges that could compete with them. The existing higher education infrastructure is insulated from market forces that could help drive down the cost of attendance and provide the public with better options.
We should support promising startups and alternative approaches to higher education, not lock them out of the marketplace.
In the nineteenth-century, the University of Virginia introduced a new paradigm in American higher education. While other American universities only offered programs in medicine, law, and theology, Jefferson’s institution allowed students to specialize in a wide range of disciplines, including astronomy, architecture, botany, and political science. Today, going against the grain is much more difficult. Agencies accredit entire institutions or programs of study rather than departments and individual courses, encouraging colleges to focus on time in classroom rather than skills and concept mastery. Students who could gain the knowledge they need with less time and fewer courses are placed at a disadvantage, because college accreditation has made the four-year degree the norm.
To break the federal government’s monopoly on accreditation, we should amend the Higher Education Act, currently due for reauthorization. In February, the National Association of Scholars released the Freedom to Learn Amendments, a series of recommended changes to HEA aimed at opening up American colleges to healthy competition, meaningful institutional variety, and freedom from overregulation.
We recommend dividing accreditation into two independent functions: mandatory financial accreditation and optional general accreditation. Under this model, an institution seeking taxpayer money from the federal government would be required to demonstrate financial stability. And making general accreditation voluntary would restore accreditation’s original role as an independent certification of excellence. With these reforms in place, college applicants and their parents could look to both types of accreditation for useful insight into a university’s financial solvency and educational quality. Institutions that are thriving financially but have poor academic programs, for example, would be much more visible to the public.
The credentialist system foisted on higher education by current accreditation requirements limits the freedom of our institutions and discourages innovation. If we want to be ready for the next Thomas Jefferson, we should break up the college cartel by fixing accreditation. Higher education should be a bulwark against government overreach, not an instrument of it.
Spencer Kashmanian is Development Associate at the National Association of Scholars. He is a 2016 graduate of The King’s College in New York City.
Image: Public Domain