Flawed Scorekeeping

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You may have noticed this week that the US Department of Ed is advising that the Accrediting Council for Independent Schools and Colleges be removed from the national roster of higher education accrediting bodies. This move has thrown a total shockwave throughout accreditation circles, and the six regional accreditors are now moving toward a common scorecard, or dashboard, or whatever metaphor is hip this year.

And while it’s crucial to throw the scammers and the grifters out of higher ed, this proposed scorecard is going to make things a lot worse. It examines things like graduation rates, debt at graduation, percentage of students in default… all good common-sense things to investigate. The problem is that, as is often true, these are all measures that the most elite schools will do terrifically on, and the schools that attempt to serve the 99% will look much worse on.

Let’s take graduation rates (by which they mean UNDERGRADUATE graduation rates, because nobody wants to talk about the scandal of 50% non-completion of doctoral programs at R1 schools). A school in which students don’t need to work, in which they all come in as freshmen and leave as a cohort of seniors and nobody transfers, in which financial aid helps overcome bumps along the way, is going to look pretty good. A school in which the students who come in as transfers don’t count in the graduation rates, a school from which a number of students transfer away and finish elsewhere, a school that serves low income students who make slower and more interrupted progress through their degree programs… those schools are going to look bad in the calculation, even if they serve their students well and most students actually finish degrees.

Indebtedness at graduation? Schools with big endowments for tuition discounting and schools with well-to-do families are just fine in that regards, thanks. Schools that serve first-generation students? Gosh, those students have to borrow money to go to school, imagine that.

Earnings after graduation? If daddy’s a broker and mommy’s a bank VP, little Lancelot is likely to do pretty good right out of the gate. If daddy’s an unemployed auto worker and mommy’s a waitress, it’s going to be a tougher climb, especially if their child majors in elementary ed and not economics.

Regardless of how bad these methods are (nobody would ever get a dissertation proposal approved if they used these methods, trust me), the accrediting bodies are freaking out, and pushing their member schools all of a sudden to get them data on the spot to make them look good, and it’s just an ugly week out there. It’s feeling worse than the Spellings Commission ten years ago.