Andrew Gillen, Daniel L. Bennett, Richard Vedder
ing practices. New practices that proved to be successful would likely be noticed by other providers and quickly emulated, leading to a state of continual improvement through competition.
Our guess is that the indirect costs of the new system would decline. This follows from the observa- tion that accreditors, especially specialized ones, would no longer be able to insist on costly input and procedural requirements, since eligibility would be based on direct measures of outcomes. Partly offset- ting this is the possibility that costs could be driven higher by the enhanced comparison of colleges. The new system would, for the first time, give institutions clear guidance on which educational practices are most effective and pressure them into adopting them or face going out of business, similar to how mar- ket driven industries function. Whether this increases or decreases costs depends on whether effective practices are more or less expensive than current practices. Since the literature on the cost effectiveness of many current practices is inconclusive, and the learning outcomes of higher education have not been adequately studied, it is difficult to say what effect this would have on costs. The fact that the public would have measures of quality adjusted by costs, it may well be this system would foster greater price compe- tition in higher education.
What Would Stay the Same? We would expect institutional diversity to stay roughly the same. The greater data availability on outcomes would facilitate comparisons and rankings. This would put much greater pressure to adopt best practices—defined as whatever the best performing colleges are doing. If the exam is truly testing the right things in the right ways, then this is arguably a good thing in the sense of increasing the effectiveness of our colleges. Nevertheless, this increased pressure to mimic the best colleges will tend to reduce the diversity within higher education. Offsetting this is that it is very likely that there are multiple ways to achieve a goal. It could be that certain educational practices are equally effective, or more effective for certain types of students. This would tend to increase diversity. Without more information, we assume that these forces will roughly balance out, leaving the diversity of institutions unchanged.
What Would Deteriorate? One area that would see deterioration would be innovation in the sense of cre- ating new educational programs. The practice of evaluating colleges at the program or course level rather than the institutional level would make it more difficult to create a course of study in a brand new field or to develop a new program with a multi-disciplinary focus. Under the current system, an institution that already has accreditation is free to offer these types of programs. But granting approval at the pro- gram level requires that the field be well established enough for there to be consensus on both the con- tent to be covered as well as an exam for evaluating performance. Neither of these conditions will be satisfied in a new or multidisciplinary field.
Lastly, the direct costs of the new system would be much higher than under the current system. Devel- oping, administering, and continually revising certification exams would be much more expensive than relying on volunteers to conduct evaluations.
Would such a system be appropriate? The current system makes virtually no attempt to measure learn- ing outcomes in a useful way, and either a qualifications framework or certification process would change that. By moving to a system based on student learning outcomes, we would see drastic improvement in all aspects of the quality assurance function. The health and efficiency of higher education would also generally improve, with the main exceptions being that radically new fields and innovation would face more obstacles, and the system might well cost more (however, higher direct costs associated with the