Inquisitor, Investigate Thyself

The Southern Commission on Colleges has far better subjects for its oversight activities than the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors.

by Reed Fawell III

Despite the fracas last summer between University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors and President Teresa Sullivan, or perhaps because of it, the university has charted a bold new course, as reflected in its recently published 2012-2013 Consolidated Budget.

Budgets are rarely inspirational. This one is. Setting a new direction for the 193-year-old institution, the budget is detailed and comprehensive, even in summary. It’s also blunt, perceptive, targeted, and visionary. The university is initiating a new financial model that facilitates multi-year strategic planning, integrates University-wide functions, identifies opportunities to grow revenues and finds efficiencies to contain costs. The budget aims to strengthen faculty by increasing pay and recruiting new professors. It incorporates distance learning. If there’s a huge problem with UVa’s governance system, it’s not readily apparent.

Given the progress made at UVa since Sullivan’s reinstatement, why has the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (the “Southern Commission”) chosen this moment to investigate the integrity of the university’s Board of Visitors? Why would it mention publicly that one possible outcome of its review could be dis-accreditation — a drastic sanction that, among other repercussions, would render University students ineligible for federal loans and grants? Upon what basis does the organization claim the powers of a grand inquisitor standing in judgment of the board?

The assertiveness of the Southern Commission is all the more remarkable considering that the University consistently ranks among the top two or three most prestigious public universities in the country, far exceeding the minimal academic standards required for accreditation. Moreover, Kiplinger ranks UVa ranks number one among the nation’s public institutions for serving students in financial need. The publication uses three criteria: the cost of a degree versus its value to the student, the certainty of timely graduation, and the value of Virginia’s aid package to the student. Meeting these standards assures needy students the best-quality education at the lowest price and positions them to quickly pay off their loans.

Using these tests, the University ranks #1 nationally in graduating students on time. It’s tied with UNC for #1 aid package. It’s ranked #3 in overall value nationally among public institutions, irrespective of student need. Only UVa and UNC in Kiplinger’s ranking meet the full financial needs of enrolled students. Average annual cost for in-need students overall is only $5,138.

By nearly all measures, UVa out-performs every other public college and university, except UNC, under the Southern Commission’s purview. Yet accreditation issues are rampant among many of the Commission’s member institutions, particularly the extent of student loans and grants. College costs and student debt are soaring. Nationally, total student debt exceeds credit card debt, surpassing $1 trillion and increasing at the rate of $100 billion annually.

These cost are rising even among students graduating on time. But most don’t. Many colleges accredited by the Southern Commission graduate fewer than 25% of those who enroll. Many take six years to earn a four-year degree, dramatically increasing their cost and debt — and they’re the lucky ones. At least they get a degree. Others simply get a bill. Dropout rates are scandalous. Many students pay for years before dropping out. Of those who do manage to graduate, some discover that they have earned worthless degrees. Forty-five percent of students learn “nothing” their first two years at college, and 36% have still learned nothing after four years, according to Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa who tested 2,300 students from the Class of 2009 that attended 24 accredited colleges. (See “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.”) Read more.

14 Responses to Inquisitor, Investigate Thyself

  1. er.. what does accreditation say about “governance”?

    • the federal government sees it from point of view of graduation rates, loan payback, and quality of education, and Obama administration is taking action independent of accreditation agency apparently.

      Accreditation agency seems fixated on Governance, and things – how many books in library, rather than results. They’re driven by what they call peer review controlled totally by college presidents. College presidents do most of Peer Review, claiming nearly unlimited powers of investigation, and supported by commission staff. This process has be famously described as if one were checking out a car to make sure all parts are there, but never starting the car and driving it to see how fast it goes. Or whether it can turn a corner. Or, indeed, whether it runs at all.

  2. Reed,
    You have done your reporting but you are mixing issues. I don’t see what graduation rates have to do with board governance issues. As you have noted, accreditation is done regionally and covers schools of different sizes, quality and missions.
    U.Va. is somewhat selective — about a 25 percent admission rate — but not in the national elite (Harvard, 6 percent). Some schools serve a very different part of society and may have a 90 percent admission rate, but their mission is equally important. You talk about completion rates and I am glad that U.Va. does well.But I am not sure how relevant that is to the issue at hand.
    The nut of the issue in Charlottesville is why a clueless board decided to oust a highly capable president they had just hired without a good reason. The accreditation group MUST explore this, regardless of their race, greed or personal identity.

    • I’ll be back to you, Peter, on this.

    • Peter –

      If Virginia’s graduation rates are high, and so is the value of its degree relative to it cost and is ease of repayment, then governance is obviously excellent. The school is creating huge value to students (particularly those in need) and to Society in general.

      Such excellence never happens accident. It’s the result of great leadership, management and implementation. Hence, the accreditors at best are incompetent (not doing their job). Which harms students. At worse they are not only harming students, they are using student to fly in disguise, pursuing their own hidden agenda. And what might that agenda be?

  3. Perhaps the real issue here is if one agrees or disagrees with evaluation of governance is a proper role of an accreditor.

    I like Reeds writing style but it tends to not be as “tight” and to the point as Bacon and Peters which you know right from the get go what their point really is and then they make their case.

    DJ, when he writes is even more direct and succinct.

  4. RF3:

    Well written. Why challenge UVa’s accreditation based on the Board of Visitors when other colleges provide very questionable value to the students they purport to teach?

    Great question.

    The Inquisitors are politically motivated bozos.

    The Commonwealth of Virginia needs to tell the Inquisitors to shove it where the sun don’t shine.

    UVa is a great school and threatening its accreditation over a two week flap between the BoV and the President proves the accreditation board is useless.

  5. “The Inquisitors are politically motivated bozos.”

    Right. And in so many ways.

  6. Let’s assume you are 100% correct – and you may well be.

    how would you go about getting rid of this system and/or freeing UVA from it?

    Bonus Question: is this situation caused by government and if it is – how would you get the govt out of it?

  7. The task is huge. Our eduction system in broken and in rapid decline. Its bankrupting our children educationally and financially (not to mention their families). Indeed, it is robbing them of their future.

    The accreditation system is place is not addressing the problem and historically has refused to address the problem, but rather to perpetuate it.
    Why? Because those running it deem the status quo to be in their self interest. They have built a system designed to perpetuate a long standing monopoly that is now running out of control. And with their monopoly now threatened, those running it are more aggressively attempting to thwart solutions, often using red herrings. This much is plain. This is inexcusable.

    The Foxes are now guarding the hen house. This has to be change.

    The system needs to be performance based. The means to measure and determine performance are well known and have been for long time. They need to be applied, free from those under the thrall of their own self interests. It’s important. Our children’s futures are at stake.

    Those educators with proven track records of performance should be allowed to innovate, finding new and better systems so as to restore quality affordable higher education for all our students in this country.

  8. geeze Reed – when I read : ” Our eduction system in broken and in rapid decline. Its bankrupting our children educationally and financially (not to mention their families). Indeed, it is robbing them of their future.

    The accreditation system is place is not addressing the problem and historically has refused to address the problem, ”

    I was wondering how the accreditation process was “bankrupting and robbing” the future….

    then…you went off the trolley….

    What is the link between the accreditation process and bankrupting students/parents?

    and how does that accreditation fox sit in the college costs hen house?

    It could be you see some linkage that I’ve never thought of so I was truly going to be enlightened….

    so…. continue please and lay it out so even us thick-headed can see.

    thanks.

  9. Will do, Larry – need a bit of time first, given holiday house guests.

  10. re: house guests – check. just arrived… will be checking in from time to time when the food, frivolity and festivities allow.

  11. Regarding the corruption of our college accreditors, consider the sad case of Southeastern University. First how far one must dig into squalor before one confronts the proper analogy. The citizen who witnesses a mugging yet fails to call the police isn’t comparable. Nor is the policeman who watches the crime but does nothing. Nor is the policeman who knows the muggers wait hidden in the bushes, yet fails to warn the approaching victims away; and watches them meet their fate at the hands of criminals instead.

    No, the case of Southeastern U is more akin to the policeman helping the muggers set up the crime scene, then guard it against others who might want to come to the victim’s aid while the mugging takes place.

    Southeastern had been in legitimate business more than 98 years before it became accredited in 1977. This opened the floodgates of Federal money for student loans and grants. All this cash led the University on a binge of embezzlement, fraud, and incompetence. It lasted 32 years before the operation was finally shut down in 2009.

    Meanwhile up to 86% of its students never graduated, student loan defaults rose as high as 42%, many degrees that were awarded proved worthless, which came as no surprise, given that the school had six full time professors (one also the registrar) claiming to run thirty academic programs.

    And apparently the only people involved who didn’t know what was going on were prospective victims, students applying for admission. For decades, the Accreditors knew but refused to tell the public, or shut the place down.

    For the horrible details see Kevin Carey’s article: “Asleep at the Seal: Just how bad does a college have to be to lose accreditation?”

    Also read the Principles of Accreditation claimed by our regional accrediting agencies. Note their obsession with Openness and Integrity. Each of those words show up as many as nine times per page of Principles. People who lack Openness and Integrity are far smarter than you think. They know the first trick to getting away with a crooked act is to convince your victim to open her files, and believe the crook standing before her is a saint.

    This failure to shut down institutions who are robbing their students is only one of several large problems that riddle our process of accreditation.

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