Accrediting and Information

I have no problem with seeing students as consumers of education, perhaps because I don’t think that the identity of “consumer” forecloses other kinds of relationships. I can be a friend and a customer of a store owner. I can be a member of a neighborhood or a community alongside someone whose services I buy. I can be a patient but also a consumer of medical services, and have those roles not be identical.

So someone can be both my student, with all the complexities of education as an ideal, and yet also a person who is paying for my services as a teacher.

So I tend to look at the debate over accreditation and wonder why some of the people who feel most intensely about the need for far more stringent, consistent and governmentally-enforced standards of educational accreditation are not general activists committed to extensive consumer protection and regulatory enforcement. You can flip this, if you like: many consumer-protection advocates don’t extend their arguments to the service economy.

I’m generally wary of strong regulatory regimes around consumer rights, however. In my view, for most services and products, very precise standards that need regular legal or bureaucratic enforcement become a serious burden on the adaptibility and efficiency of markets. The consequences of unsafe products need to be fairly extreme before I agree that strong regulation is needed. So guaranteeing the safety of foodstuffs and medicine strikes me as a valid responsibility. Toys perhaps. Machinery whose public use makes an unsafe product risky to large numbers of people, like airplanes and cars. At the other end of the spectrum, labelling what cultural products are suitable for children to consume: not at all important. Routinized inspection of a wide range of products for safety: not important. Extensive governance of professional services, perhaps through some kind of regulated system of certification? Not a good idea.

What do I think is a good idea with medicine, for example? Information, and lots of it. I want to know everything about a medical professional whose services I might use. I want to know how many people they see, whether they have a high rate of error or failure, what their relationships with pharmaceutical companies might be, what procedures they perform most often, and so on. I want the same information about lawyers, psychiatrists, financial advisors. Transparency to the fullest degree. Moreover, I want to know everything about the professional associations to which someone belongs: how do they maintain standards, what do they do if misconduct is reported, and so on.

This strikes me as highly applicable to educational institutions, even private ones. We should be even more transparent than we are. Our syllabi should be available online, maybe even a sample lecture or two, for all faculty. Virtually all financial data except for individual salaries should be available to anyone. And so on. The list of obligations I suggested at an AHA meeting for institutions admitting graduate students could be generalized as the obligations we owe all students. We should try a good deal harder to explain how we create and maintain standards, to demystify academia.

A lot of institutions will protest that a great deal of information is already available. I can’t be the only professor who was riveted by a 2006 story in the New York Times that suggested that an institution that increases its tuition instantly sees an improvement in the quality of its applicant pool, regardless of whether it changes anything about the quality of the services offered. That suggested to me that a great many consumers of higher education in the United States are using price as a very crude and informationally-impoverished signal of quality. That also suggests to me that all of the information available already isn’t helping consumers much to meaningfully gauge whether higher education is worth the price. Or even, in some cases, whether there will be a price: the recent change in Swarthmore and other elite institutions’ loan policies brought home to me once again that many potential applicants probably do not fully grasp that the hefty price tag won’t apply to their family due to lower incomes, that many students pay discounted rates.

The worth of higher education doesn’t have to be crassly economic (though there’s nothing wrong, in my view, with students and their families asking what the long-term payoff might be). It can be about intangibles: about citizenship, values, critical thought, adulthood, social networks, however you choose to come at it. But in all of those cases, we may not be anywhere nearly as transparent as we could be.

So transparency, yes. A regulatory machine administering tests, enforcing rigorous common standards, hauling professionals up before a bureaucratic star chamber every four years? No.

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4 Responses to Accrediting and Information

  1. Matthew says:

    Hi, long-time listener, first-time caller.

    You wrote:

    “someone can be both my student, with all the complexities of education as an ideal, and yet also a person who is paying for my services as a teacher.”

    Reading this, I feel myself compelled for some reason to say that that the roles of student and consumer tend to contaminate each other. I suppose this is pretty apparent these days-given what you said, for example, about the role of pricing in fixing an applicant pool (which I find pretty frightening, given the incentives it hands administrators). And I guess everyone recognizes that this is going on.

    Still, I wonder if these kinds of things aren’t symptomatic of new social norms that we as academics have trouble recognizing, or something. For example, I’ve spoken with undergraduates who were hostile to campus activism because they thought that -all- public communication at a University should follow the hierarchical rules of authority established in classroom setting. Concretely, they thought that undergrads protesting the core curriculum were speaking above their station-that they were ineluctably ‘rude,’ ‘impertinent,’ etc. And that they were necessarily so by the simple fact of protesting-that ‘people smarter than us have set the core up for us and we ought to respect their decisions,’ to paraphrase. On the one hand, they were very (i.e. excessively) reverent about the aims of education, but on the other hand, their attitudes about those aims seemed totally privatized: function as a student, only as a student, follow the proper channels, do not seek publicity for yourself, etc.

    I went to an undergrad institution which flogged the socratic method and open inquiry, read some democratic/public sphere theory for my academic work, and find this student attitude mind-bending. Of course, the very fact that it was directed against other students indicates that it’s not universal. But it’s certainly made it hard to TA social theory.

    Then, maybe it’s just me.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the two roles cross-contaminate only at some extremely particular junctures. For example, the values of an academic institution have to contain (I think) the possibility of a student’s failure. There’s a judgemental component to education as it stands, because in part we’re certifying a student has certain capabilities when they graduate. From a pure consumer standpoint, someone could argue that they paid their money, so where’s their damn degree? Or, for example, someone could argue that if it’s all about the consumer, there’s no place for supporting forms of knowledge that aren’t strongly driven by consumer demand. Get rid of the classics departments, because not that many students want to do classics! But the faculty retain the prerogative to define what knowledge is, independent of what the consumer thinks knowledge ought to be. (Which is as it should be.)

    So yeah, you’re right, confusing the two roles at times can be a problem. Just as it can be a problem if I think of a store owner as a friend but then I also think he’s gouging me mercilessly on some product. I think there are moments where it’s entirely proper for students to evaluate higher education as a product, however, and where thinking about what we owe to our customers produces better universities.

  3. hestal says:

    My life has been spent trying to turn wishes, like yours for transparency in medicine, into processes that deliver what you wish for. I have been involved with medical transparency for many years and little has changed. Docs can’t seem to agree on anything so they don’t want transparency. They talk about the “standard of care” but it doesn’t exist. I was a juror in a trial in Dallas not long ago in which the 30-something male dropped dead from a record-breaking bulge in one of his main arteries. His wife sued the surgeon for not operating in time. He wanted to wait a week until one of his assistants returned from a European vacation. The patient died three days after his one meeting with the surgeon.

    The defendant and two docs for the plaintiff agreed that a bulge that size had never been seen in a living patient, only in autopsies. But the defendant said that standard of care did not require him to operate immediately. The other two docs said that the standard of care required immediate surgery. But of course there is no standard of care manual anywhere. And one can be written. I have seen a couple of proposals over the years. But docs object because they are comfortable with their own standard of care manual, their personalized version of good medicine, and they don’t want to have to think. These are the guys that say medicine is more “art” than science. Medical schools don’t teach to a common standard of care. It all depends on who is teaching whom. Personal versions of medical practice are passed down from generation to generation.

    And the regulators won’t do anything. In Texas they will jerk a license if the doc is using drugs, but they look the other way if he is prescribing too many drugs — that is until somebody sues over a death or an addiction.

    So the point to this is that transparency won’t get you anything for decades, if ever. But single-payer health insurance would fast-track the development of data that would be what you are wishing for. That is the only way.

  4. Your post points to the accountability emphasis that dominates all levels of education and is now seeping further into higher education. But, as you so aptly point out, those doing the evaluating either professionally or for personally reasons don’t always know what they are evaluating and what they need to know to do an accurate evaluation of what they are actually seeking to find. And, as I think you’ve pointed out before, how can we measure education “instantly” when much of it is indeed a process and sometimes can’t be measured until years later?

    I would encourage anyone in the various disciplines to get very actively involved in any and all assessment and accreditation efforts they can find. Our only other option is to have the “measurements” and, as a result, the overall evaluations, forced on us instead of us playing a role to guide the larger movement in a sensible and effective way.

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