The Inmates Running the Asylum?
Both of the historical strengths of higher education we’ve highlighted would be badly eroded. Institutional autonomy would be greatly circumscribed if the government was the ultimate judge of what constitutes a valid education. Rather than maintaining or encouraging diversity, every institution would be pushed towards a common politically popular vision once a set of universal standards were in place. In other words, an FDA for education “would represent the ultimate in centralization, standardization and uniformity.”160
The efficiency of higher education would be further impaired as well. Government agencies are noto- rious for being unable or uninterested in innovating. In the few areas where they succeed in encouraging innovation it is either by giving grants to largely unmonitored private parties (through agencies such as the NSF or NIH) or by studying methods of achieving a known goal (such as NASA or Defense projects). Neither of these is appropriate for higher education. Innovation by existing universities would likely be stifled, and innovative new colleges would be even more disadvantaged, caught in a catch-22 of not being allowed to operate until they have demonstrated their effectiveness while not being able to prove their effectiveness without being allowed to operate.
Lastly, such a system would likely be much more costly than is currently the case. The direct costs would certainly rise, as the volunteers in today’s system were replaced by government bureaucrats. Indi- rect costs would likely go up as well, as the government would likely have more onerous paperwork and reporting requirements. It is possible that costs would decline if the government reined in “recommen- dations” that required spending more money. However, the history of the budgets of government runs programs renders this highly unlikely.
Would Such a System Be Appropriate? Overall, installing an FDA for higher education would make our system much more like those found in Europe, whose colleges are typically subject to much greater gov- ernment control. A minimal level of educational quality could be assured with greater confidence, but the higher education sector itself would be much more uniform, stagnant, and ineffective, similar to the cur- rent state of the public K-12 education system.
It should be noted that “there is no fear of federal interference more often expressed than that of the government imposing some ‘one size fits all’ standard for quality.”161 There is virtually unanimous agree- ment among those in the academy that direct government involvement of this type is to be avoided with many observing that “the DOE has made clear that it is not a good judge on issues of academic quality, and the prospect of its telling others how to promote academic quality is grimly amusing.”162 This leads to the conclusion that “the risks of going down the road of bureaucratic federal intervention in teaching and learning are far greater than the likely benefits.”163
We are in complete agreement with the academy on this score. While we find the improvement in the
TABLE 15 THE EFFECTS OF REPLACING ACCREDITATION WITH THE GOVERNMENT
Quality Improvement: Define (Appropriate) Measures of Quality :
Certify Quality: Inform the Public:
Promote the Health and Efficiency of Higher Education
Note: (+) represents an improvement in performance in this category, (–) represents a deterioration in performance in this category.