Fixing the Babel of Multi-State Licensure

States are ultimately responsible for college quality, but 50 definitions of quality are too many. It's time to cooperate on state approval of higher education, Alan Contreras writes.

March 10, 2009

From time to time there is discussion in higher ed circles about the desirability of developing a system of college approval using interstate reciprocity based on a model code. The reason this subject comes up more and more often is that more colleges are operating outside their original state of licensure. Schools end up complying with a dozen different sets of state laws and, in many cases, pay significant fees to multiple jurisdictions. All of this has the net effect of increasing the cost of serving students.

Because of the exceptionally decentralized system of college operations and approvals in the U.S., there is no meaningful federal approval that can be relied on to guarantee that certain standards are met.

Reliance on accrediting bodies does not work for a number of reasons. First, accreditors are membership-based organizations; they are not set up to operate as enforcement agents. Also, they are not structurally or legally capable of resolving student complaints, which is a significant role that states currently handle. They have standards that vary somewhat from group to group. In many cases they do not have frequent enough contact with schools. Finally, they are not answerable to the public in any reasonably direct way.

I have heard college leaders argue that they should not be answerable to the public. It is important to remember that although faculty require the freedom to pursue truth where it may lead them without political interference, colleges as a whole are indeed answerable to the public. In fact, only a government can give them degree-granting power, under U.S. law. This is our only bulwark against diploma mills, and the admirable recent actions by Wyoming and Alabama governments to snuff some dubious colleges demonstrates its necessity.

I have heard accreditors argue that because their standards are acceptable to the U.S. Department of Education, states should treat those standards as automatically acceptable. This assumes that the Department of Education has sufficient academic standards that it requires accreditors to enforce, which it does not. The feds do a fairly good job of making sure that colleges who get federal aid are capable of handling it, but they are not in the academic program oversight business. I do not think that any discussion of interstate standards or reciprocity should get tangled up in a discussion of what accreditors or the feds do.

But what do the states do? I work as principal college evaluator for Oregon, and have also done evaluations for several other states. The things that states focus on, and which any interstate agreements would have to incorporate, tend to be detailed and prescriptive, unlike the bulk of accreditation standards.

For example, every three years Oregon requires our approved private-college programs to provide my office with detailed qualification information for every faculty member, full-time and part-time. We look at exactly what their degrees are, what their experience is, and what courses they teach. We often find colleges using faculty to teach in fields in which they are not qualified. We fix that problem.

That is just one example, but it is something that no other type of agency, state or federal, does, except in certain narrow contexts such as evaluation of grant applicants. Why do we do it? Because states are legally responsible for the quality of the educational programs at all colleges, public and private, that operate in our jurisdiction, and in many cases only the state has that responsibility. We have to do it because no one else does or can. We take that role seriously and for the most part (California and Hawaii being the most obvious exceptions) we do it well.

It is time for states to look carefully at each other’s laws and figure out a way to recognize each other’s work when it meets certain minimum standards. What should those standards include? Although there are many possible things to evaluate about a college, the core of any model code upon which reciprocity could be based would have to include the following.

Faculty qualifications. Without a careful look at who is teaching what, and whether they are qualified to do so, meaningful evaluation of a college’s quality is not possible.

Curriculum. Are the programs in each field structured in a reasonable way, comparable to the norm at similar institutions?

Award of credit. Is credit awarded based on an appropriate amount of student work (for example, are schools prevented from giving a degree based on a weekend’s work)? Is credit awarded primarily based on teaching by the school’s own faculty? Is transfer credit limited to schools of demonstrably similar quality? Is credit by examination limited? Is so-called “life experience” credit strictly limited and carefully evaluated?

Admissions. Are admitted students capable of performing college-level work? Are they provided accurate information during the recruitment and admission process? Are any job placement claims backed by solid data?

Finances. Is the college solvent? Does it have adequate reserves to get through periods of falling enrollment? Are fees established and assessed in an appropriate manner, and only on a term-by-term basis? Are refunds available on an appropriate schedule, also term-by-term?

Are there other issues? Certainly, among which are student services, library access and the experience of college managers. However, the five categories shown above have proven to be the crucial ones in my years of experience as an evaluator. The reason is that a failure of performance in any one of these five almost certainly means that the college is not acting appropriately, cannot succeed and is likely to founder. Indeed, a major failure in any of these five should lead the responsible state government to take action to make certain that the college cleans up its act or is closed.

If I could be certain that another state was doing a good job of enforcement in the five core categories, would I be willing to allow a college based in that state to operate in Oregon without going through my own state’s detailed and expensive evaluation process? Yes, with a couple of provisos.

First, faculty teaching only at Oregon’s branch would have to be evaluated by someone, either my office or the state of origin. That is a fairly straightforward task and could be handled by either state, though if they are local residents it probably makes more sense for them to be screened by the state where they teach.

The larger issue is that of student complaints. One of the reasons that offices like mine exist is to provide students who have a bad experience owing to inappropriate actions by a college with a way to get complaints resolved without resorting to litigation. In effect, we are a mediator with a very large stick in the closet. In my ten years as Oregon’s chief evaluator, I have rarely had to use the stick, though I have occasionally cast an ostentatious glance in its direction for effect. Sometimes student complaints are simply not justified or don’t violate any state rule. Sometimes a student complaint uncovers a very significant issue that a college needs to fix. A state can compel corrective action.

It is impractical to expect a student in Oregon to get complaints resolved by a state agency in Indiana or Texas. It seems clear that any streamlined state approval reciprocity would need to leave a significant chunk of problem-solving in the hands of the state where the problem happened. That in turn would require that a model code and reciprocity agreement include arrangements for interstate cooperation in such issues. In practice, I work with my colleagues in other states (and several Canadian provinces) quite often already. We help each other with various kinds of issues. I have no doubt that states willing to sign a reciprocity agreement would be willing to help each other make it work.

So how do we begin? Well-meaning education organizations with little knowledge of the practicalities of how state approvals actually work will decide that they should simply invent such a system without bothering to involve actual regulators. To preclude this kind of bumblehandedness, we need the states to simply get to work on this project and develop a workable model code. An attempt to do this happened in the 1970s, but it was not timely. Today, with so many schools operating across state lines, the need has never been greater.


Alan Contreras works for the State of Oregon. His views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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