How to make university more affordable? Try the Charter School Model

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Rick Hess: So tell me about College101. What’s the big idea?

Stig Leschly: College101’s big idea is that to improve the higher education system, there must be a better pathway for new colleges to enter the college sector and challenge the status quo. There must be an entry process for college startups that mobilizes them to innovate on cost and quality and strictly monitors them for their results in exchange for access to public assistance.

Hesse: What is the problem you set out to solve?

Stig Leschly

Leschly: American universities are too expensive: prices have risen more than inflation almost every year for the past half century. They fall short: Graduation rates and short-term outcomes at colleges are abysmal in many cases, especially those serving low-income students and students of color. And they are immutable in their conceptions. Most colleges are structurally barred from true innovation because they are stuck with fixed costs, have no discretionary money to invest in new models, and are governed by groups of faculty deeply opposed to change and self-defeating. preserved. The American university sector is reeling towards crisis. The sector and millions of students desperately need innovation, disruption and competition from new colleges created by social entrepreneurs and nonprofits with experience in education and workforce development. work.

Hesse: Many readers may not be familiar with accreditation. Why is it important?

Leschly: College accrediting bodies are professional associations operated and paid for by the titular colleges. They wield tremendous power because being accredited is a requirement for any college that wants to access public college aid. In their current operation, accreditors help to maintain American higher education as a kind of state-funded cartel. There is a fixed set of long-standing colleges that blatantly overcharge, underperform, and avoid change, yet have unique access to extraordinary sums of state and federal aid for higher education without accountability from accreditors or public agencies and without the productive pressures of new entrants. Accreditation in its present form began with the passage of the Higher Education Act some 60 years ago, when Congress – probably without imagining the insider trading that would occur – designated accreditors as gatekeepers of public assistance to colleges and as the filter through which all new colleges would need to pass.

Hesse: So how is College101 actually going to change that?

Leschly: We produce research that shows that new college models and new accreditation actors are needed for real reform. We have two reports – one that examines how accreditors are not taking action on college results and another that examines the few accreditors who approve new colleges. We are also particularly interested in helping to incubate new accreditors who develop expertise in approving and monitoring startup colleges and holding them accountable for results. There have long been regulations on how to create a new accreditor, and the US Department of Education has at various times invited new parties to enter the accreditation space.

Hesse: You have just completed an intriguing study on college accreditation. What did you find?

Leschly: We examined the monitoring activity of US university accreditors over the past decade and found that accreditors did almost nothing to discipline colleges for poor student performance or shoddy academic designs that could, for example, example, lacking a thorough program. In fact, of the actions taken by the seven accrediting bodies that oversee the colleges that enroll 95% of students, only 1% of the actions taken were those that disciplined colleges for substandard academic designs or student outcomes. It’s amazing. Accreditors essentially circumvent their oversight responsibility. Accreditors also maintain procedures that make it nearly impossible for new colleges to gain accreditation. In short, accreditors work for colleges, and in doing so, predictably refrain from reviewing colleges’ academic outcomes or designs and approving new colleges that may bring changes and improvements to the industry.

Hesse: You talked about importing some of the lessons from the charter school model to improve higher education. How will this work?

Leschly: Unlike the K-12 sector, American higher education is significantly “enhanced”. Much of the public finance in the higher education space comes in the form of student-controlled and student-directed Pell Grants and federal loans. Student choice is alive and well in higher education and generously funded by DC As a result, if students are provided with new and better options – those that cost less, meet their day-to-day needs for flexibility about when and the way they learn, and lead to a marked improvement in their future earnings and career prospects – they will then quickly transition to these new college models. I am immensely optimistic that new designs will emerge as they see a predictable path to accreditation. Many of these social entrepreneurs are charter school veterans, working in education, workforce-related nonprofits, or serving administrators at existing colleges who want to design a college from zero. I am also convinced that philanthropy will generously fund new colleges. In short, I predict that if the accreditation barriers to the formation of new colleges can be lowered, human and philanthropic capital will be mobilized.

Hesse: What are some of the challenges to make this work?

Leschly: One of the challenges is convincing higher education policy makers and advocates on left and right issues that tightly regulated university startups are essential to improving higher education and that a change in accreditation is necessary to make possible the formation of new colleges. Most policy discussions in higher education take the current range of colleges for granted and set about thinking about a “next phase” in accountability and grantmaking policy. Of course, new and better ways to fund and hold colleges accountable are worth pursuing, but their impact is fundamentally limited because they do nothing to introduce new players with new ideas to the industry. Another challenge is the technical and political work of introducing new accreditation models due to the degree of regulation and protection of the accreditation space. Our hope is that a subset of current accreditors, and perhaps a few newly created accreditors, will take the lead in approving start-up colleges and holding them accountable for outcomes, including short-term revenue outcomes. of students, in exchange for access to public funding.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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