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The Need for Greater Accountability in Higher Education

It’s high time to hold institutions accountable for learning, completion, affordability, equity, student satisfaction and program outcomes.

January 5, 2022

Some of higher education’s worst scandals take place in clear sight and aren’t perpetrated by shady, sleazy for-profits but by some of the nation’s highest-profile universities—Columbia, Harvard, USC among them.

A colleague directed me to one of the latest examples: “NYU Is Top-Ranked—In Loans That Alumni and Parents Struggle to Repay.”

As The Wall Street Journal explains:

  • New York University parents and graduate students borrowed $3.4 billion in federal Plus loans over the past decade, more than at any other university.
  • NYU skimped on scholarships for needy undergraduates, covering just 62 percent of need, the lowest percentage of any private school with at least a $1 billion endowment.
  • NYU also had more graduate programs with high debt loads—40 of 49—than any other university.

Congress, for reasons that don’t bear scrutiny, has refused to cap Parent Plus loans, even though the program has derailed many families’ retirement plans and has left many parents struggling with debts they can’t repay. Apparently, senators and representatives have no interest in angering universities that benefit from unrestricted loans to parents to cover the cost of tuition or in limiting low-income students’ access to funds, especially when the program, in the past, made money for the government.

But where are the faculty and other watchdogs?

I beg to ask: How can faculty and administrators sleep at night knowing the predatory nature of all too many graduate programs? What has happened to their sense of mission and purpose? Gentlemen, have you no shame or sense of decency?

And why haven’t accreditors sanctioned universities that offer predatory program that encourage enrollees and their parents to take out loans that will eventually fall into default? Why not require admissions offices, at a minimum, to inform prospective students that they will be unable to repay their loans—and require them to acknowledge this information in writing?

This does not mean that students will be shut out from opportunity. There are more affordable options, even at elite private research universities. For example, a student can spend $10,000 on Columbia’s prestigious summer program in publishing, which has a job placement rate of roughly 95 percent—or expend 10 times that amount on the school’s one-year publishing master’s program.

The time has come to require institutions to claw back their marketing and become much more transparent about programs’ likely financial outcomes.

A big impediment to reform is that there is virtually no accountability. Unless a program lands on The Wall Street Journal’s front page, a university and its faculty and administrators suffer no professional, legal or reputational consequences.

Even then, the worst punishment is embarrassment, which a school can brush off by claiming (as NYU did) that the situation is improving, that the institution is increasing its investment in financial aid and only wishes it had more funds to hand out.

Speaking about accountability—or its absence—it’s now a decade since the University of North Carolina’s “paper courses” scandal was exposed. A recent book, Discredited by Andy Thomason, retells the story of how, over two decades, some 3,100 UNC students, 47 percent of them athletes, took fake classes that allowed them to maintain their academic eligibility while undertaking minimal or no work.

Thomason, a former editor in chief of The Daily Tarheel, offers a rather puzzling take on the scandal. As he writes in the book’s conclusion, “there are no villains in this story, only well-intentioned people who suffered sobering fates.”

No villains? How about the administrators who turned a blind eye when athletes and others were denied the education and the academic supports that the institution promised?

Public attention focused largely on the failure of the NCAA to hold UNC accountable. The NCAA took the position that what occurred at UNC wasn’t an athletic but an academic scandal, since the phony classes weren’t created solely to benefit athletes. Talk about sophistry.

I am personally interested in why SACS, UNC’s accreditor, failed to do more to hold the university to account. Here was an instance of academic fraud of unprecedented scale and duration accompanied by an utter failure of institutional oversight, followed by an investigation that by all accounts was inadequate at best and misleading at worst.

In the end, the punishment that SACS meted out was a mere year of probation for failing to meet seven accreditation standards, involving academic integrity, program control, academic support services, academic freedom, the faculty role in institutional governance and compliance with its program responsibilities under Title IV of the Higher Education Act.

I’d call this a slap on the wrist, given the gravity of the violations. Certainly, the punishment pales compared to the sanctions and financial penalties imposed upon Penn State and Michigan State for the sexual abuse those institutions tolerated.

Which brings us to the need for far greater institutional accountability.

In a recent essay, Ryan Craig, whom I consider among the shrewdest observers of the higher education landscape, makes a point that bears repeating: that no “regional accreditor requires institutions to document or demonstrate any student outcome to retain accreditation. Not affordability, not learning outcomes, not completion, not employment, and not student satisfaction.”

Incredible.

Craig, rightly in my view, identifies a series of flaws in our current system of accountability.

  • Accreditors have no incentive to be rigorous. Those responsible for overseeing the reaccreditation process aren’t incentivized “to be anything other than collegial.”
  • The reaccreditation process relies on principals who are deeply invested in the existing system. Since reaccreditation involves peer review, opportunities for conflicts of interest are rife. As Craig comments caustically, the “visiting teams, leadership and staff at accreditors, and the board members who vote on reaccreditation … come from member colleges and universities, creating the appearance of a revolving door.”
  • The accrediting agency relies too heavily on institutionally generated information. The accreditors base their evaluation heavily on the institution’s self-study and presentation to the site visitors. The process does not involve the kind of active diligence that investment bankers or venture capitalists undertake by conducting surveys, independently evaluating data or seriously investigating equity gaps, program outcomes and student satisfaction.

My own observations of the reaccreditation process echo Craig’s. Genuine problems too often go unobserved, and follow-up is minimal and delayed. Even worse, stakeholders—including faculty, staff and current and prospective students and their parents—rarely get the kind of detailed information that they need to drive institutional improvements or to make informed decisions.

As a result, “hundreds of institutions with awful records on learning, completion, affordability, employability, and student satisfaction” face no pressure to improve.

Privilege can take many forms, but among the most egregious is freedom from consequences for shameful behavior. It’s high time to do more to hold institutions to account.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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