some of us are brave

HigherEd Prestige Cartels: My Latest on MOOCs, 4profits in Inside Higher Ed

Last week when I asked a classroom full of Georgia State University students why they didn’t apply to Everest College, I got a range of giggles and choruses of “I don’t need to get off my couch!” That’s standard. So, too, was the inevitable response from the young woman in the back: “Because they’re, like…they’re not accredited. I mean, I don’t know how accreditation works but…they don’t have it so…you won’t be able to get a job with that degree.”

That student touched on a familiar conflation of accreditation in higher education with some metric of quality and/or legitimacy.

Lest you think this is a function of her status of a college student, let me be clear. I hear the same conflation from professors, administrators, and senior colleagues all the time.

Indeed, unless you research higher education it is likely that you have a similar sense that accreditation is the primary mechanism for ensuring legitimate, quality college credentials.

That’s not exactly true.

Accreditation is an interesting regulatory function. It doesn’t have the government oversight we seem to think it has. Most are small, non-profit entities. Through the years they’ve been sensitive to the same ideological tradewinds that have impacted all public policy. From being passive rubberstampers during neo-liberal re-imaginings of education to enacting regional differences in racialized higher education policy, accreditation bodies have undergone a lot of change. Indeed, HBCUs once had similar issues with accreditation to those being faced by for-profits today.

As a sociologist, I have argued that the real barrier the for-profit sector has faced in it’s integration into the higher education field has not been accreditation but what laypeople think accreditation means: legitimacy.

I argue in my latest piece in Inside Higher Education that the for-profit sector found it difficult to manufacture a sense that they are a legitimate, “real” college, as my young student alludes to above. You can’t manufacture legitimacy and public opinion quite so easily as you can buildings, curricula and market buzz.

The proposed CA bill that would mandate all state universities accept transfer credit hours from for-profit college providers could short-circuit the legitimacy issue for many for-profits. The bill is presented as a solution that enables MOOCs, the darlings of the market elite. But, there is nothing in the provision that would not extend that right to all for-profits.

As I say at IHE:

Despite the sector’s phenomenal growth and financial prowess it has, to date, been unable to crack the perception that for-profit college credentials are inferior to “real”  college degrees. It would seem that they could build it, the people could come, and they could even bring their federal aid, but they could not make for-profit education prestigious.

A California bill proposed last week  could end up giving for-profit institutions that have never sought or won accreditation a new kind of legitimacy.

No judgement calls here, just the way I see it. Whether you think this is a net positive or the beginning of the end for elite public universities, I think it portends the potential of fundamental change either way.


One comment on “HigherEd Prestige Cartels: My Latest on MOOCs, 4profits in Inside Higher Ed

  1. chris
    March 18, 2013

    ” Indeed, HBCUs once had similar issues with accreditation to those being faced by for-profits today.”
    Not, I suspect, for the same reasons.

    Having inherited the product of a number of for profit colleges (and there are great exceptions: SCAD is a for profit college that sets the standard for excellence), I would suggest that those who are promulgating this bill in California are doing it not in the interests of the students, but very much in the interests of their campaign coffers and investment portfolios. Legitimacy may not be conferred with accreditation, but it is very much the function of engagement, personal investment in the students from the institution, and a sincere effort to move students in socio-economic terms. By law, for profits must owe their primary fealty to their shareholders. There is no reason or motivation for this to change, other than decreasing enrollments due to the realization on the part of their customers (students) that they are not getting any return on their investment.

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This entry was posted on March 18, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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