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Accreditation as Protectionism in the New Economy

[Update: Am I prescient or what?  Inside Higher Ed just published an article about the battle going on at the federal level over which accrediting agencies are deserving of recognition.]

In his book (which I highly recommend) “What Would Google Do?,” Jeff Jarvis introduces a theme that runs throughout his discussion of how the Internet is fundamentally reshaping the world: “Protection is not a strategy for the future.” The most au courant example of this unwise strategy (which we can watch failing in real-time) is the newspaper industry, but there are plenty of others littering the info superhighway:

“How many companies and industries fail to heed the warnings they know are there but refuse to see?  The music industry is, of course, the best example of digital dead meat.  Detroit waited far too long to make smaller cars and pursue electricity as a fuel.  Many retail chains opened stores online but stopped there, not seeing opportunities to forge new relationships with customers as Amazon had.  Telecom companies were blindsided by the emergence of open networks that undercut their business – even as those networks operated on the telecom companies’ own wires.  Ad agencies kept trying to forestall the reinvention of their industry, still buying mass media evn as more targeted and efficient opportunities grew on the internet.  News executives thought they could avoid change and even believed they should be immune from it because they were the holders of a holy flame: Journalism with a capital J.  […] They lost their destinies because they wanted to save their pasts.”

As I read this section, it occurred to me that even the non-profit sector is not immune from the threat of an inclination toward protectionism.  For colleges and universities, protectionism takes the form of accreditation.

Though it has a noble purpose (ensuring academic standards), one can already see how accreditation might be used by academic institutions to render themselves obsolete in the face of competition.  After all – accreditation only protects an institution so long as that accreditation is valued by a significant segment of the population, and accreditation is being devalued in a number of ways; for example:

  • Competition: Already there is a proliferation of non-accredited schools competing with the accredited to provide advanced education.  If these schools gain prestige or are able to secure a significant cost discount in comparison to traditional accredited schools, they could undo the accreditation model.  Elsewhere there are even special accrediting organizations being created to grant “accredited” status to schools that otherwise wouldn’t qualify (for example theological schools).
  • Specialization: As college is increasingly treated as a vehicle for increasing one’s household income, the appreciation for general education requirements has diminished (example: Trina Thompson, the student who just sued Monroe College in the Bronx because she’s yet to find a job a mere four months after graduating).  More and more students, tuition-fronting parents, and lawmakers are just demanding the slip of paper with the embossed seal.  This is profoundly unfortunate given that it’s arguable that general education is more valuable now than any time in history given that the ever-shifting, thought-based economy (we’re well on our way to working in) will require agile workers who know how to think as broadly and evolve as rapidly as the fields they’ll work in.
  • Inaccessability: The new paradigm is openness, and colleges/universities are typically designed to be closed.  From admissions requirements, to scholarly research databases, to elitist university cultures –  access is limited, thereby limiting the potential for prospective students to happen across the great things happening and want to become involved.
  • Commodification:  Students frequently view themselves as consumers; as they see it, they are paying for an education and often times demand that they receive it.  The pressure on academic institutions to grant degrees is enormous as a result.  Schools that grant degrees too easily may swell their ranks with customers, but they likely risk devaluing their programs as a result (as the graduates they send out into the world ill-equipped to think critically in their discipline reflect poorly on the school than gave its stamp of approval to them).

Higher education institutions should strive to make sure the accrediation process is as authentic as possible, and that it really is entirely about quality and not an exclusive club designed to keep others out.  They should also be thinking hard about what it is that they do best, so that they can be competitive in a future absent the accreditation that differentiates them from other learning organizations.  Something to think about.

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