In some ways, education is similar to the fashion industry. The tie-dyed shirts, leisure suits and bell-bottoms that were so in vogue in the ‘60s and ‘70s have long been considered out of style. Fashion trends come and go, and evolve with the tastes and needs of society during that period of time.

Primary, secondary and postsecondary educations also evolve, but in very different ways. The American education system is as complex as it is diverse for a reason: It strives to provide access and opportunities for people with varied backgrounds, interests and abilities. The education your mother and father received during the height of the bell-bottom era is not the same one available today – and for good reason. Advancing technology, changes in the job market, and the needs of society have dictated the development of new academic programs and the enhancement of others.

Through it all, though, education has been a lightning rod for criticism. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) once again is making plans to further increase federal oversight and control of higher education. The DOE continues to press for increased transparency in the accreditation process – the review that ensures increasing quality and effectiveness of academic programs – and more attention to student outcomes.

Since higher education’s federal financial aid and support is tied to accreditation, we pay careful attention to the regional process that reviews our institutions.

The DOE plan began in November with five executive actions, such as sorting institutional scores into categories and taking steps to improve communication between accreditors and the DOE. Some, such as increased attention to educational outputs, partially mirror what has been happening in higher education accreditation for decades. Instead of focusing on inputs, such as the number of volumes in the library, we have shifted to measure what our students are learning as they prepare for life after graduation. Through a process of assessment, all of higher education has come to adopt a process of continuous improvement and learning to do things new ways. We have created hybrid courses with electronic supplements to the traditional classroom, linked academic learning directly to service and internships, and sought ways to provide higher levels of learning in our redesign of curriculum. 

The DOE, however, wants to move to more metrics that focus on imperfect measurements that penalize institutions that do not follow the DOE scheme for performance. For example, the DOE once again wants to place emphasis on earnings of graduates. Misericordia University, for example, graduates teachers, social workers and other important professionals who are fully capable of serving society’s needs regionally and nationally. Their starting salaries also are lower when compared to graduates in other fields, such as engineering and computer science. It continues to baffle me that the DOE has a regressive fixation on wages of new graduates. It is a simple metric, but it also is one that punishes students for choosing careers that serve others.

Another executive action will publicly post probation letters to higher education institutions. The DOE is asking Congress to change the law to allow final accreditation reports to be posted on the Web for public inspection. Again, this seems reasonable until one thinks carefully about what higher education accreditation is supposed to accomplish. Unpaid volunteer specialists in higher education serve as consultants and evaluators in a rigorous process of peer evaluation. Most institutions spend two years preparing a self-study and exhibits that will be examined by the visiting review team.

Evaluators provide an institution with commendation for what they do well and provide ways they can improve performance going forward. And, yes, much of that advice is confidential as it is intended to give an institution the flexibility to decide on its best path for a better future for both its students and larger community. 

Publicly posting final accreditation reports will, in effect, remove the ability of volunteer evaluators to frankly assess the institution. What we will likely receive is the opportunity as taxpayers to pay for government employees – many with little or no higher education experience – to accredit institutions. And, given the political pressure on the DOE, the reports will be less than helpful in transparently improving outcomes.

The proposal seems destined to fail since the DOE wishes for more transparency and an increased emphasis on outcomes is naïve. Hopefully, Congress will continue to resist efforts from the DOE to provide federal control over higher education.

Botzman is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., the oldest four-year institution of higher education in Luzerne County.