Over the past 20 years, the price of wireless service has fallen 46 percent, the price of software has fallen 68 percent, and the price of televisions has fallen 96 percent. But over that same time, the price of college tuition has risen 199 percent.
Is a college education three times better than what it was twenty years ago? I don’t know of any parents who think so. But our wireless service, software and televisions sure are.
Why have prices fallen and quality gone up for all of these consumer products while prices have skyrocketed without any changes in quality for college tuition?
There is no one simple answer to this question, but I strongly believe that the different regulatory environments facing these industries are a significant factor.
Consider a major announcement in the higher education field made last week: Purdue University’s acquisition of Kaplan University. Now I happen to think the marriage of a highly respected public university and the nation’s largest for-profit college is a good thing.
A respected and established institution like Purdue could provide a nimble online company like Kaplan the oversight and quality control they need to bring safe and valuable higher education options to millions of Americans who don’t have such opportunities today.
But I also understand that there are some people who have a different view. Some progressive activists believe that for-profit companies have no place in higher education, that Kaplan could corrupt Purdue’s brand and use the public university’s good will to steer vulnerable students into low quality educational products.
I think these fears are overblown, particularly considering that the new joint-entity’s board will include five members from Purdue’s Board of Trustees and just one from Kaplan. What I do know, however, is that no fewer than three regulators will have to approve this deal, including one non-governmental entity that is completely nontransparent and unaccountable to the American people.
The Higher Learning Commission was one of six regional accreditation agencies created over 100 years ago to help universities and secondary schools better coordinate their curricula, degree, and transfer credit standards. At the time they were created these entities were voluntary, non-governmental institutions that had no power to prevent other higher education institutions from being created.
That began to change with the 1952 GI Bill which outsourced the vetting of institutions eligible for GI benefits to the nation’s regional accreditors. The federal government turned to the accreditors in 1952 after congressional investigators found thousands of sham colleges were created overnight to take advantage of the benefits provided in the first 1944 GI Bill.
As the federal government has steadily ramped up its financial support for higher education benefits, it has continued to outsource the vetting of higher education institutions to these regional accreditors. This make-shift system worked great for decades, but in recent years these regional accreditors have come under heavy criticism for both lax oversight over some online institutions and a heavy hand in killing some promising innovations.
No regulator is ever going to be perfect. But if they are going to be gatekeepers for a sector of the economy as important as higher education they must be transparent and accountable to the American people. Unfortunately our nation’s regional accreditors are neither. They do not share how they make their accrediting decisions with anyone and their board members do not face accountability at the ballot box.
This needs to change.
That is why I have introduced the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act. This bill would allow states to create their own accreditation system for institutions that want to be eligible for federal financial aid dollars.
Each state could then be as open or closed to higher education innovation as they saw fit. They could even stick with their current regional accreditors if they chose to do so. But they could also enable innovators like Purdue President Mitch Daniels to go even further in their mission to expand higher education access to those who had limited access before.
Our higher education system should not be held captive to 100 year-old institutions that were never intended to be regulatory gatekeepers in the first place. Instead we should allow those communities that want to experiment with higher education policy the freedom and accountability to do so.
Mike Lee is the junior U.S. senator from Utah.