Credential innovation is a hot topic in higher education, from microcredentials to digital badges, from competency-based and clickable transcripts to stackable credentials. Case in point: to facilitate dialogue, Lumina Foundation launched the Connecting Credentials initiative to help shape the vision and align the work of some 80 co-sponsoring education, labor and business organizations (including Parchment, where one of us serves as CEO).
While numerous articles have been written (by Kevin Carey, Ryan Craig and others) and conferences held on credential innovation, for many people in academe the concepts are new, with an emerging vocabulary that includes both familiar and unfamiliar terminology. Of those terms, “stackable credentials” is perhaps the most commonly and differently used. In our view, it is also the most important concept in the broader discussion. The term itself is clever, invoking the image of Lego blocks and the metaphor of assembly. But assembly of what? With what linkages?
The most common description of stackable credentials goes something like this: over a lifetime of learning, individuals can assemble, or stack, a series of traditional degree-based and/or nontraditional credentials -- certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, apprenticeships and more -- that recognize achievements and provide an accurate assessment of knowledge, skills and abilities. The more credentials learners accumulate and stack, the more they increase their currency in our knowledge economy, creating more direct pathways to better jobs and higher wages. While that narrative captures a number of key ideas, it glosses over important differences in what credentials are being stacked and why.
Stacking Credentials: Vertical, Horizontal and Value Added
Attainment of the four-year degree has increasingly become the primary focus of higher education, as evidenced by the shift of many two-year institutions toward transfer-friendly programs for learners whose final aspirations are a bachelor’s degree. At the same time, the longer history of community colleges, as well as many land-grant and technical four-year institutions, has been to provide educational programs and credentials tied to occupational fields at the certificate level, tied to a certification or, at the associate level, with a tight vocational focus. Those distinct types of educational programs and pathways have given rise to distinct forms of credential stacking.
In short, credentials can be stacked in many ways. We think the best framework is vertical, horizontal and value added, although we are not sure who actually coined these terms. (Will the master builder please step forward?) Most citations go back to Salt Lake City Community College.
Vertical Stacking. The original and more traditional version of credential stacking, vertical stacking, thinks about credentials in a hierarchy -- with one level building on another, enabling the learner to progress toward a higher degree. For example, a high school graduate earns an associate degree with a specialty, followed by a four-degree in a selected industry, like engineering, and finally an M.B.A. in preparation for a corporate upper-management position.
Vertical stacking is driven by the social forces at play in what Burning Glass Technologies calls the credentials gap: the difference between the education levels of currently employed workers and those employers are demanding for new hires. According to Burning Glass, an increasing number of jobs that nondegree holders historically filled now require degrees. For example, 65 percent of postings for executive secretaries and executive assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree, while only 19 percent of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.
Horizontal Stacking. With horizontal stacking, the level of the credential is less important than the subject matter. Learners expand their subject matter expertise by earning credentials in related fields that, collectively, prepare each person for a specific type of job. Unlike vertical stacking, there is no explicit ordinal ranking or prerequisites, although some credentials may build on others.
For example, many highly skilled, highly sought after and highly compensated IT professionals don’t follow a traditional baccalaureate path, stacking degrees vertically. Instead, they build a series of nondegree certificates and certifications horizontally across an occupational field. A learner could earn a CompTIA certificate, Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert certificate and Cisco Certified Network Associate certificate with the goal of broadening his or her skills as a systems administrator or analyst.
Value-Added Stacking. Combining the concepts of vertical and horizontal credential stacking, value-added stacking is when a learner adds an area of expertise to an existing two- or four-year degree with shorter-term credentials to prepare for a specific type of job. In South Carolina, for instance, many of today’s health care professionals follow this path. A learner could add patient care technician and phlebotomy certificates to an associate degree or supplement a bachelor’s degree in health management with an information services certificate -- all leading to a position as a medical office administrator.
Why Stackable Credentials Are Worth Defining
Increasingly, Americans are earning many kinds of credentials to improve their position in the labor market. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 46.3 million adults (aged 18 and over) held a professional certification or license, and 19.1 million held an educational certificate. So while Burning Glass is right that a degree still matters, as research by the Georgetown Center for Workforce Development demonstrates, nondegree credentials can have a significant impact on earnings as well.
On average, says the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, high school graduates receive a 20 percent wage premium with a certificate. And certificate holders, especially those in high-earning fields of study, do better than many with an associate or bachelor’s degree. For example, in computer and information services, male certificate holders have higher earnings than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Women certificate holders in the field earn more than 75 percent of women with associate degrees and 64 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees.
At the center of credential innovation and its related lexicon are the learners and the pathways they take. Increasingly, the best advice we can give students is not simply to get the highest degree possible. Instead, we need to think clearly about occupational goals and the different ways credentials can enable access to the fields they aspire to enter.
Most learners will never know the term stackable credentials or recognize that what they’re doing when they earn follow-on credentials is stacking. Instead, the responsibility falls on higher education institutions to have a clear conception of the term as we work to make our programs truly stackable and help our learners turn more credentials into more opportunities.
Jimmie Williamson is president of South Carolina Technical College System, and Matthew Pittinsky is an assistant research professor at Arizona State University and CEO of Parchment Inc.
Islamophobia continues to grow in the United States, where 45 percent of the population holds negative perceptions about Muslims. The rise of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has helped fan the flames of America’s animosity towards Muslims, but it began well before his candidacy.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that, between 2009 and 2010 alone, there was “a 50 percent rise in anti-Muslim vandalism, a 150 percent rise in Islamophobic rhetoric and a 300 percent rise in violence.” That, combined with increasing visibility of Muslim Americans, has unfortunately resulted in violence toward Muslim students.
For example, after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Muslim students studying in Boston reported avoiding areas surrounding the bombing site because of hate slurs and threats directed at them, especially toward women who wear the hijab. Nationally, Muslim students reported racist comments, microaggressions and discrimination on campuses, including being labeled as terrorists and physically assaulted by peers. Such assaults have intensified to killings, such as the murder of three college students near the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill in February 2015.
All of this has highlighted why colleges and universities must step forward and address the needs of Muslim students.
Frequently, campus services directed toward Muslim students operate through student affairs offices in conjunction with other departments, such as student development, diversity or multicultural offices, and international student offices. Depending on the context and available resources, institutions have generally approached the issue by building greater cultural awareness, initiating campuswide programs targeting Muslim students and training faculty and staff members to appreciate Muslim students’ religious and cultural identities.
A few institutions serve as good examples in their approach to Muslim students. Historically, most secular campuses avoided devoting significant resources to religious programs, especially non-Christian ones, but now many acknowledge the importance of students’ religious identities. Several are adopting the concept of religious pluralism to mend cultural and religious conflicts on their campuses. Collectively, student development offices, student affairs offices and student religious groups are uniting to encourage greater representation of all religions and advocating coexistence.
A case in point is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which renovated several of former chapels and Christian centers to better accommodate the 28 student religious organizations at the university. Officials there advocated for spaces welcoming all religious groups, encouraging interfaith interactions and dialogue. Accommodating prayer rooms on the campus has received positive feedback, but at first MIT lost some support from Christian students when it redesigned a popular chapel into an interfaith space. Christian students felt Muslim students were impeding on their turf when Muslim students attended in large numbers a Jummah (Friday prayer) service at the newly renovated spiritual center. Despite that initial pushback, however, the efforts have ultimately united student religious and cultural groups and made Muslim students feel more included than ever.
Azfar Anwar, an Islamic studies scholar, commented that, while structural changes are vital, it is “more about sitting down and understanding each other.” As Islamophobia grows nationally, interfaith efforts must flourish. Therefore, institutions must provide funds, locations and time for students to engage in interfaith dialogues.
Campuses also need to expand their services outside of faith-based activities. For many women who wear hijabs, for example, gym hours can be uncomfortable due to the extra attention they may draw because of their attire. While they do not feel limited in the activities they can do, they wish to exercise in a more comfortable environment.
Thus, after Muslim students approached Harvard University’s athletic facilities about the issue, the athletics department partnered with the university’s student affairs office to investigate services other female students found desirable. After considering requests, Harvard’s Muslim Student Association, the student affairs office and athletic facilities established special women-only gym hours. For Harvard, the initiative helped not only women wearing hijabs but all other women on the campus by creating a more welcoming environment.
Muslim students deal with visible societal discrimination, which can penetrate any campus atmosphere. As portrayals of Muslim violence and terror have echoed across the nation, Muslim students have struggled with how others perceive them. Some colleges and universities are now actively engaging guidance counselors to specifically support Muslim students combating these psychological challenges.
At George Washington University, the offices of diversity, student affairs and mental health services and the institution’s Muslim Students Association have partnered in supporting Muslim students stressed by harmful stereotypes and deconstructing those stereotypes. Together, they host discussions and workshops, encouraging all students to attend, where people learn how to handle harmful images, language and acts directed toward Muslim students. In addition, counselors offer free counseling specifically designed for Muslim students or any students dealing with issues related to their religious identity.
Safe Zones and Cultural Awareness
Most important, campuses need to develop safe zones and increase cultural awareness among faculty, staff and student populations and ensure a welcoming environment, not just for Muslim students, but for all.
Safe zones serve the purpose of providing students a location on the campus where they know they can truly be themselves without fear of judgment or discrimination. The establishment of safe zones has proved to be quite successful in providing Muslim students areas to explore their personal identities together, gather for cultural and religious events, and host educational and awareness programs regarding Islam.
“Having a safe space to pray, have religious talks or even just catch up with other Muslim students on campus created an amazing atmosphere for us students to feel comfortable in our own skin,” said Fatima Ahmed, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. In addition, Ahmed said, “this safe space allowed us to learn more about ourselves, who we were as students, Muslims or even just citizens in society. We learned how to better connect with other students and organizations on the campus, which proved to be a learning experience for everyone involved.” Such safe zones provide an escape for Muslim students, as for other underrepresented student groups, from what at times can be a stressful experience navigating the dominant campus culture.
In a recent study, Muslim students felt that few people outside of their religious communities understood their needs or how their religion might require them to adjust to their campuses in different ways than other students. “Being a Muslim woman who also wears a hijab has sometimes proved that people already have a judgment or an idea of the type of person I'm going to be like just by looking at me. There have been plenty of times where I have received negative comments or ignorant remarks,” said Ahmed. Thus, it’s important for institutions to train campus faculty and staff members and to develop collective knowledge on the distinct needs of Muslim students.
Colleges and universities, and their student affairs offices, should work to ensure that Muslim students can be as successful as possible. Through the establishment of safe zones and by increasing campus cultural awareness, institutions can not only become more welcoming of Muslim students but also encourage greater diversity in general. That added diversity brings a cultural depth to campuses and builds a greater sense of pluralism. In sum, positively welcoming Muslim students, and giving them opportunities to express their culture, provides benefits for all students.
Allen Kenneth Schaidle serves as an educational consultant and is pursuing an M.Sc. in education at the University of Oxford.
Protest over killing of three Muslim students in North Carolina
The new SAT has been administered for the first time, and it has come and gone without great incident. In time, this new test will be taken for granted, and few people will know or care that it ever was any different. Before that happens, though, it’s worth reflecting on the changes and what they tell us about the changing nature of education. Spoiler alert: the changes are pretty dramatic, and they reflect a very different view of the qualities that are important for success in college.
Of course, the SAT has never been the winner of any popularity contests. If teenagers had their way, it would have been abolished years ago. Even so, the new SAT is much more deserving of the scorn it will receive than its predecessors were. And it could even become dangerous if it plays a major role in changing our view of what college should be.
The Players and the Plan
Since 2012, the College Board, the creator of the SAT, has been led by David Coleman, who had previously been one of the chief architects of the Common Core curriculum. When he arrived at the College Board, Coleman felt that the SAT was “too disconnected from the work of our high schools.” That was a problem he set out to fix, and the new SAT is the product of that vision. Just as the curriculum sought to unite state standards, the new SAT brings the college admissions process into compliance with the Common Core.
In principle, that might sound reasonable. It would be unfair to make college admissions dependent on skills that were totally unrelated to high school classes. But that doesn’t mean that the SAT should be exactly like exams in high school. It’s at least arguable that the skills required in college are different, or at least that they should be. We expect more original work, more creativity and more initiative out of college students. We’ve all known people who struggled in the compliance/conformist approach typical of many high schools only to blossom in college when they finally get to shape their own experience. Are more tests of high school curricula the best way to give those people the chance to show that they can succeed?
In the past, the SAT was designed to be an alternative, to measure things that weren’t usually tested in high school. Questions were hard because they tested abstract reasoning skills and fairly creative problem solving. The people who designed those tests would therefore probably agree with Coleman’s claim that the SAT was disconnected from the high school curriculum. But they would say that this disconnect is a feature and not a bug.
Now, however, the tide has turned against tests of aptitude. Past revisions have brought the SAT closer to what is taught in schools, but Coleman’s SAT goes much farther in that direction. Now, the overarching idea is that the SAT should be testing what is taught in schools and that students should never have to do anything that they have never done before. But is that a good thing?
As we ask whether the SAT is measuring the right things, let’s consider issues of fairness and inequality as well. One of the important objections to the SAT has been that it is an unfair barrier for underprivileged students. One of the (dark) jokes of test preparation is that the influence of wealth on test scores is so prominent it would be easier to cancel all the tests and just submit the parents’ income taxes returns instead. While that joke exaggerates the influence of money on test scores, the ability of some to purchase test preparation services is a serious ethical issue.
The new SAT is, to some extent, a reaction to this kind of criticism. But does aligning the test with high school curricula tend to level the playing field or reinforce the pre-existing tilt of that playing field? Does the new SAT make test preparation less important, or more? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the important changes to the SAT and see whom it will reward and punish.
SAT Reading: Mourning the loss of “SAT Words”
The most widely publicized change to the SAT has to be the de-emphasis of vocabulary. Questions testing “SAT Words” are gone. While the new SAT has retained some vocabulary in context questions, those questions are among the easiest on the test. On a released test, some of the words test takers must define “in context” included everyday words such as “directly,” “form,” and “hold.” Whereas the old SAT struck fear in the hearts of those who preferred their reading at an ESPN level, the vocabulary questions on the new SAT shouldn’t scare anyone.
Why the change? Is it simply a matter of dumbing down the SAT? Not quite, but politics and marketing are part of the answer. Remember that the SAT is a product that no one has to take. The ACT is a perfectly reasonable alternative, and many colleges have opted out of requiring any such test at all. To survive, the SAT has to convince students to take it, and lately the SAT has been losing that battle to the ACT.
As a result, the SAT feels pressure to change the test in a way that will appeal to today’s students. You can see this in the elimination of the much-hated wrong-answer penalty, the way percentiles are calculated and new yet confusing tables comparing ACT and SAT scores. What does this have to do with vocabulary? Quite a bit, really, because vocabulary questions have always been unpopular with students, and so the decision to do away with them is at least plausibly related to this unpopularity.
Marketing is definitely at play, but it isn’t the only factor. The College Board has a view of what skills should be tested to show readiness for college, and having a sophisticated vocabulary isn’t on that list anymore. The College Board thinks that the SAT should mirror the skills taught in high school, and nowadays that curriculum is more focused on being ready for the workforce and less about being able to handle ivory tower seminars on literary criticism. The College Board is telling us that these words don’t matter as much, and they’re using their power in college admissions to make their prediction a reality. After all, if the people who get into the most competitive colleges don’t need them, then those words really don’t matter, right?
In practice, however, vocabulary questions were among the best indicators of who would do well in college. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The only reasonable way to build your vocabulary is to read challenging texts, and the kids who did that tended to do really well in college. So vocabulary questions measured important things, and even better, they were less vulnerable to test preparation techniques than the rest of the test.
While critics would tell horror stories of people cramming SAT words in order to get an unfair edge, that was never really an issue. I know from years of SAT preparation that it is nearly impossible to dramatically improve your vocabulary in the short term unless you are willing to devote your life to this endeavor. The benefits of SAT word lists were never that great. Students with busy schedules (that is, all of them) were better off studying for other parts of the test. Now, though, tough vocabulary questions are gone, and that makes test preparation even more effective, which means it’s easier for people with more resources to do well. So instead of alleviating aspects of educational inequality, dumbing down the vocabulary actually makes things worse.
The rest of the reading test is fairly standard, except that it’s easier. It’s less time pressured, and the scoring is so forgiving that you can get pretty close to a middle score even if you know only one-third of the material.
Still, the test seems to have more questions that are vague, arbitrary or ambiguous. For example, one question that asks why certain facts are mentioned has one answer choice that says “offer an explanation” and another that says “support a conclusion.” But in this case, the conclusion and the explanation were basically the same thing, so what should you pick? The College Board wants you to pick the explanation choice, but there’s really nothing wrong with the conclusion choice.
Standardized tests have always had these issues, especially with reading questions. But now when I’m explaining SAT questions, I find myself explaining that the way to get the correct answer is to think the way the College Board thinks. And sometimes I can’t explain the correct answer at all. The math questions are better in this respect, but the issues there run deeper.
SAT Math: A Monument to Drill and Kill
The College Board tells us the new test focuses more on “the content that matters most for college readiness (rather than a vast array of concepts).” In practice, that means a lot of algebra and functions, and less geometry and arithmetic. The new test has much more content from Algebra 2, and even a little trigonometry. You can see the reasoning behind that: math matters, advances in STEM fields have promoted human flourishing and you need Algebra 2 for those fields.
But that doesn’t mean everyone should take Algebra 2, and it doesn’t mean skills in Algebra 2 should be so important in determining whether and where everyone goes to college. Let’s face it: for the vast majority of people, Algebra 2 is a painful slog through concepts they will never use again. Are we really sure that we want to force everyone to take the course in the first place? And even if we think students need to take it, should it be more important to their college admissions chances than other branches of math that have been downplayed in the new SAT? To function in society, you probably should have at least some understanding of averages, percentages, ratios and many other concepts, but the equation of a parabola probably doesn’t belong on that list.
The real objection to the changes in the math section, though, is not so much about what is tested but rather how it is tested. In the past, the hardest questions on the SAT were less a test of math skills and more a test of critical thinking skills. You still needed to know the math in order to answer the question, but you had to come up with nonobvious alternatives, spot assumptions and find logical shortcuts in order to get a great score. Those skills should be relevant to college success, right?
Some people don’t think so. They argue that students find these kinds of questions really frustrating, because you would have to solve problems that were different from any you had seen before. Of course the typical high school math experience nowadays is heavy on repetition and light on both exploration and critical thinking. As a result, SAT Math is now a relentless drill-and-kill exercise that is more of a test of endurance and patience than a test of true problem-solving ability. But in the real world, who is more valuable: the person who can solve the same problem over and over or the person who can analyze a new problem and figure it out without being told how to do it?
The College Board says students should be “rewarded” for their hard work learning “essential math skills.” Another way of seeing that is to conclude that the College Board wants uniform compliance with the Common Core vision of education -- not just in K-12, but beyond as well. If the selection process for college (and eventually, college itself) becomes more like high school, do we really think the world will be a better place?
Is There Anything Good About the New SAT?
It’s not all bad. The reading and writing sections now ask you to draw inferences from graphs. That’s an important skill that deserves to be tested. The math has a lot more reading in it, and that’s at least defensible, since translating between English and math is crucial for the application of math concepts. The College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy is a really nice development. People need high-quality, low-cost practice with official materials. So it could be worse.
Why Is the College Board Doing This?
The new SAT is not a nefarious plot to ruin education. The College Board honestly believes the new SAT is a better test than the old one. The Common Core is all about consistency, and so if you are a true believer in the Common Core, then you probably believe that this vision of education should extend into college admissions as well.
It’s also important to acknowledge that the Common Core arose in response to real problems. Today, too many students arrive at college unprepared for college work, and they drop out in great numbers and with heavy debts. Tests that measure those fundamental skills are legitimate parts of the college admissions process.
However, that doesn’t mean the Common Core is the best articulation of those fundamental skills, and it doesn’t mean skills outside of those fundamentals should be ignored entirely. College should be more than an extension of high school, and it would be an indictment of our education system if the skills required to succeed in college were merely the same as those required for high school success.
The first round of data suggests that the new SAT does predict success in the first year of college. In a sense, that’s good news, because if that weren’t true, then the SAT would clearly be a dismal failure. But there’s another way to look at it: given that the new SAT is a drill-and-kill slog of compliance, maybe the concern shouldn’t be that it won’t predict college success, but rather that it will.
Ben Paris has more than 20 years of experience in test preparation and educational assessment, designing test preparation courses for leading companies as well as training programs to help improve the quality of test questions. He has published dozens of test prep books, trained hundreds of teachers and taught thousands of students how to succeed on standardized tests.
Several weeks ago, I completed five bracing years in Washington, D.C., as president of the Association of American Universities. What have I learned about research universities and their place in American life? Three things stand out: undergraduate education, crucial to liberal democracy, is showing signs of getting better; federal regulation of universities, an issue to which I had previously paid little attention, is stifling and out of date; and big-time intercollegiate athletics, incredibly popular, are also incredibly perilous for universities, as their moral and physical hazards multiply rapidly.
If anything exhibits the essentiality of education to the maintenance of democracy, it is the current presidential campaign. Some candidates have succeeded with appeals to fear and base instincts, with misleading claims based on passion instead of evidence, with repudiation of reason and rationality, and with autocratic overtones. America needs citizens educated to think critically and independently, and trained to weigh arguments about complex subjects like energy and climate and tax policy against one another with some degree of sophistication.
What prepares citizens to carry out these essential tasks? A liberal education -- that is, in its original meaning, an education suited to produce free people. That is a far more important outcome for our country than the (very large) difference in career earnings between those who earn a college degree and those who don’t, the figure generally cited as the primary benefit offered by a degree.
It is encouraging, after years of neglect, to see many of our nation’s leading research universities giving high priority once more to the quality of education they offer to undergraduate students. Motivated partly by faculty ingenuity and concern, partly by parents’ complaints about shortcomings in their children’s education, public and private universities are spending a great deal of time, effort and money on freshman seminars; undergraduate research programs; curricular enhancement, including smart use of online materials; and learning analytics designed to produce more individualized teaching methods.
At AAU, for example, our five-year-old undergraduate STEM education initiative has built considerable momentum, thanks to the active participation of dozens of member universities. The project aims to improve the teaching of gateway courses in science and math -- precisely the freshman and sophomore classes that have traditionally turned off many would-be science majors before they really get started. Professors use evidence-based methods of teaching, such as group learning, problem solving, clickers, online tools and other means of increasing student engagement in the classroom. Good courses in chemistry, physics, math, computer science and the life sciences are crucial for students who will confront tough policy choices as adults in numerous domains calling for scientific literacy.
Science is just one part of a strong liberal education. Humanities and social sciences are also vital to enabling students to develop critical thinking, the ability to speak and write effectively, and the kind of collaborative skills needed in the workplace and in the public sector. Employers increasingly cite these skills as essential to their hiring needs, and life studies clearly reveal their contribution to personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Much more needs to be done to promote courses in the humanities, in particular, because the current zeitgeist heavily favors careerism: students are flocking to business and other practical majors in an effort to appeal to the job market. A longer view demonstrates the value of a broad education, as many studies have noted.
A Burdensome Regulatory Regime
Universities continue to put a premium on research, which has made American institutions the best in the world. But lagging federal investment over the past decade has threatened our pre-eminent position, as has a regulatory regime plagued by overlapping, duplicative, burdensome requirements that stifle faculty members and cost universities millions of dollars in unproductive legal and audit fees. The past five years have been remarkably frustrating for those of us trying to cut through this thicket: after taking initial steps to reduce and harmonize regulations early in its tenure, the Obama administration has made no further progress.
Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) have developed legislation to address these issues. And the administration continues to discuss the possibility of further actions by the end of the year. We hope for progress, if not by January 2017 then in the next administration and Congress.
Another key regulatory domain for universities is accreditation, which not only is outmoded but threatens to taint our entire enterprise. Accreditation, which is intended to ensure the credibility of colleges and universities, fails to provide accountability for institutions that abuse students and government funds. Moreover, it subjects institutions to the same unproductive requirements whether they have superb or mediocre track records.
The process of accreditation rarely results in serious action of any kind. Recent cases of shockingly ineffective schools (mostly proprietary institutions) gaining reaccreditation in spite of glaring, even fraudulent practices, have drawn negative attention to our entire sector. They have fed the public perception that universities in general are unregulated, when in fact we are among the most regulated industries in America.
What can be done? At the least, the regional accrediting agencies need to institute differential accreditation based on past performance. They should not treat the Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame the same way they treat institutions that leave most of their students with exceedingly high debt and no degree. And accreditors need to set a few indicators -- like graduation rates, student debt and default rates -- such that institutions falling below certain thresholds will be subject to greater scrutiny. If those institutions are found to be failing the interests of students and abusing taxpayer support, they should be put out of business.
An Out-of-Control Model
Finally, intercollegiate athletics. I played four years of college baseball and basketball (at the Division III level), and I am a fervent fan of college sports and the cohesiveness and community they engender among students, alumni, faculties and administrations. For excitement and aesthetic pleasure, they are unparalleled in American life. The public therefore wants more and more of them.
But big-time college sports are now out of institutional control, whether of the universities themselves or of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Recent scandals and court decisions make it clear that the model we know so well is cracking, probably irreparably.
What have university leaders done about this? Overwhelmed by the demands of millions of alumni and other fans, very little. Instead, they watch as “student-athletes” strike and appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, former players sue, wealthy lawyers go to court to argue that the NCAA violates antitrust laws, and judges are left to determine the future of intercollegiate athletics.
Looming over these legal exposures is the sheer scale of the money implicated in the enterprise. Some universities’ athletic programs bring in so much revenue they don’t know how to spend it. Recent competition for building the largest scoreboard at football stadiums is almost -- almost -- humorous in its lunacy. Other institutions can’t balance their athletic budgets in spite of tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Coaches’ salaries are an embarrassment: in most of the 50 states a university basketball or football coach is the most highly paid public employee -- by a wide margin. The vast amounts of money pouring into the National Basketball Association and National Football League can be condoned because they are professional businesses. But the hoards of cash falling into the laps of universities for completely nonacademic purposes compromise the extraordinary work they do in carrying out their academic missions.
What can be done about the tremendous vulnerabilities inherent in intercollegiate athletics? It is late in the day, perhaps too late, to stave off such developments as paying players or drastic solutions imposed by the courts. Only very serious internal reforms might save the enterprise. Universities need to consider downsizing across the board: the length of the season, coaches’ pay, skyboxes and scoreboards, athletic dorms, and the other monstrosities of the enterprise that now tarnishes campuses otherwise devoted to learning.
Will universities get off the tiger’s back on their own? I am not optimistic.
Hunter R. Rawlings III served as president of the Association of American Universities, an association of leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada, from 2011 until April 25 of this year, when he became interim president of Cornell University. He is a former president of Cornell and of the University of Iowa.