In Casablanca, Capt. Renault pockets his winnings and remarks, as he shuts down Rick's American Cafe, "I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" After decades of presiding over the disastrous combination of declining quality and runaway costs of American higher education, the leaders of America's college-accrediting agencies are nearly as convincing as Capt. Renault as they loudly protest their injured innocence.
President Obama was right to collar them. Six accrediting agencies have for decades under federal law held the task of determining which colleges within their geographical regions -- nearly 3,000 schools -- are of sufficient quality to make them eligible for federal student aid. What is there to show for this enormously expensive investiture of power? Nearly seven in 10 employers now believe that higher-education quality must be improved for our graduates to remain competitive in the global economy, and two-thirds of college graduates hold debt to the tune of almost $27,000 on average. It's clear that accreditors are failing to do their job.
Obama appears to be out of patience with excuses from these guardians of the status quo. He envisions the possibility of "a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher-education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results."
In fact, such an alternative is already before Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A bipartisan group within the federal advisory council on accreditation recently proposed a system that would base eligibility for federal student aid on clear measures of quality and effectiveness, such as graduation rates, student learning gains, job placement, financial stability and student loan default rates. There would be no intrusion on the autonomy of America's vibrant diversity of higher-education institutions, no micromanagement of their missions. Federal dollars would flow only to institutions that document successful outcomes, as President Obama said.
Threatened with the potential end of a cozy sinecure, however, college accreditors are now in a tailspin of denial. On their watch, tuition increased between 1982 and 2007 by 538 percent, almost five times the rate of inflation. Yet most four-year college graduates are unable to compare and contrast two newspaper editorials, or correctly compute the cost per ounce of food items, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. A 2011 study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa showed 36 percent of these graduates made little or no intellectual progress in four expensive years at college.
And college graduation rates are a disgrace. Recently, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reviewed 1,070 schools, including all of the public liberal arts universities and a large slice of the private colleges. Fully 40 percent of schools did not graduate even half of their students in six years. More than 13 percent of these fully accredited institutions had graduation rates of 33 percent or less. And why are we talking about six-year graduation rates for four-year programs? The United States is the undisputed champion of cost per student in higher education among all other developed nations. It is also in the very top ranks of college dropouts.
With these facts exposed to the well-deserved indignation of the American public by Obama, there is real hope for change. With increased transparency like graduation rates, employment rates among graduates and average debt load, the public would be able to know which colleges deliver the skills and knowledge needed for a broad liberal arts education and a career.
American higher education has been the envy of the world. Bold solutions will ensure that it remains so. It is time to get proposals like the one already before Secretary Duncan in front of lawmakers and opinion leaders. America's college students deserve much better than the hopelessly flawed system of quality assurance that now pretends to watch over their interests. America's college students deserve real and sweeping reform.
Dr. Michael Poliakoff is vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher-education nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence and accountability.