Last week the New Yorker published a “truth is stranger than fiction” profile of Jeremy Strong, the actor who plays Kendall Roy in the HBO hit Succession. Strong is compelled to experience life as his character and – although Kendall is a drug-addled buffoon – “take him as seriously as I take my own life.” This means ordering shaved fennel salads, off-camera weeping and pacing, throwing himself off platforms, injuries – the works. All this agita raises a question posed by Brian Cox, who portrays Kendall’s father Logan Roy: after Dustin Hoffman stayed up for three nights for a scene where he was to appear sleep-deprived, Sir Laurence Olivier reportedly asked “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”
In explaining his process, Strong variously cites Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Jung, Pinter, and The Wasteland. He’s a superfan of Karl Ove Knausgard. “I’m not a religious person,” he says, “but I think I’ve concocted my own book of hymns.” One such hymn is creating tension with other cast members by isolating himself on set, prompting co-star Kieran Culkin to say: “That might be something that helps him. I can tell you that it doesn’t help me.” My favorite comment on the New Yorker profile is that “Jeremy Strong is on my list of ‘people who extremely went to Yale.’”
Like some other people I know, Strong’s extreme intensity doesn’t extend to self-awareness. He travels the world with his own coffee grinder and somehow doesn’t understand that Succession is supposed to be funny. Beyond verisimilitude to the Kendall character, if Strong’s devotion to process and inability to see the forest for the trees sounds familiar, maybe it’s because that’s how U.S. colleges and universities qualify for federal financial aid – a system based more on Succession than success.
Higher education institutions can avail themselves of federal grants and loans – the lifeblood of the industry – once they’re approved by a accrediting agency
recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. To remain in good standing, our largest regional accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) asks colleges and universities to
check these boxes:
1) Do you have an education-related mission and behave ethically?
2) Are your academic programs high quality?
3) Do you have the right faculty, staff, and support to deliver these programs?
4) Do you have a plan to improve your programs?
5) Do you have sufficient institutional resources to do all of the above?
Reaccreditation is an intensive process involving hundreds of staff and faculty. First, the school must compile a voluminous document called a self-study, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink in an attempt to demonstrate that standards are being met. Second, there’s a site visit by a team of administrators and faculty from other colleges and universities, supported by the accreditor. Third, feedback is provided and accreditation is renewed – usually for a decade.
Based on the resources required for self-studies and site visits, colleges and universities must be 100% committed to reaccreditation. But committed to what is a fair question. Neither HLC nor any other regional accreditor requires institutions to document or demonstrate any student outcome to retain accreditation. Not affordability, not learning outcomes, not completion, not employment, and not student satisfaction. There are no quantitative standards or thresholds. Has the self-study made the case that the institution is meeting vague, qualitative requirements? Is there a plan to improve? Was the site visit sufficiently convincing?
Like Jeremy Strong / Kendall Roy, reaccreditation is intense but fundamentally flawed. Contrast how we decide which colleges and universities the government should continue to invest in with a typical investment decision process.
1. Self-study vs. prospectus
The start of the process is similar. Colleges and universities put together a self-study assembling all available evidence. Likewise, a company provides a (more succinct) prospectus or investment memorandum supplemented by a data room.
2. Site visit vs. management meeting
The site visit is also comparable to the meeting where management walks through a presentation on the business and investors ask questions.
3. Who’s in the room where it happens?
The big difference is who decides. Accreditation depends on agents – administrators and faculty from peer institutions – and provides no incentive (financial, professional, reputational) to be anything other than collegial and go with the flow. But the typical investment process either relies on agents who are highly incentivized to make good investment decisions, or involves principals themselves.
Accreditation is also handicapped by regulatory capture. While they make a show of independence, accreditors are funded by the institutions they regulate. Moreover, all three levels of review – visiting teams, leadership and staff at accreditors, and the board members who vote on reaccreditation – come from member colleges and universities, creating at least the appearance of a revolving door.
Most important, accreditation’s peer review process is inherently limited in terms of resources and expertise. In contrast, investors often spend a great deal of time and money – including retaining experts and conducting third-party assessments (e.g., quality of earnings analysis, technology diligence, customer calls, secret shopper surveys, legal diligence) – to evaluate whether to make an investment. Good investments rely on active diligence, which means refraining from taking what’s in the prospectus at face value, focusing on and probing outcomes, and generally pursuing many more workstreams than simply sitting in meetings during a site visit.
A mentor once told me, “the best investment decisions are the ones you don’t do.” Such decisions are almost never made in higher education. With a vanishingly small number of exceptions, succession to reaccreditation is a sure thing. Why? Because decision-makers have no skin in the game, may have conflicts of interest, and there’s no active diligence to verify or challenge what’s being presented in the self-study or during the site visit. Like Jeremy Strong, our current process of accreditation is tightly wound but clueless.
Succession-based accreditation is harmful in two ways. First, it creates a massive distortion in how America invests in education and training after high school. Every year, the net cost of the Federal Student Aid program – the difference between grants + loans made and interest + principal repaid – is over $100 billion. While the number is probably much higher due to failure to properly account for non-payment of income-based loans, even $100 billion is a massive annual investment in colleges and universities by taxpayers. In comparison, the federal government spends about $1 billion per year on other workforce development and training. Department of Labor funding for apprenticeship grants is currently $170M per year. So for every $100 invested in accredited colleges and universities, we’re spending just $1 on other pathways to economic advancement and socioeconomic mobility. Other countries aren’t as confused. In response to Covid, Australia added well over $1 billion in apprenticeship funding. Scaled to the U.S., Australia’s recent incremental investment in apprenticeships exceeds $10 billion per year.
Second, the current accreditation process produces doublespeak. Last week the New York Times reported on my new favorite Chinese Communist Party (CCP) position paper: “China: Democracy That Works.” In releasing the report, a CCP spokesman crowed that China “has achieved process democracy and outcome democracy, procedural democracy and substantive democracy, direct democracy and indirect democracy, and the unity of people’s democracy.” That’s a lot of democracy – all premised on elections to select local representatives who then select the next level, on up. Of course, the CCP neglects to mention that local candidates who don’t toe the line are harrassed or worse. Also left unsaid is that citizens can’t control or change their government and China keeps company with North Korea at the bottom of most rankings of democracy and liberty (rankings that actually matter).
As the CCP doublespeaks democracy, accreditation does the same for higher education – particularly pernicious in a sector that purports to uphold and advance truth. Accreditation should mean more than that a college is following a prescribed process or has taken some of its federal grant + loan millions and invested in an 800-page self-study. But thanks to the government’s decision to delegate eligibility to process-headed accreditors, hundreds of institutions with awful records on learning, completion, affordability, employability, and student satisfaction produce impressive self-studies and remain very much in business – “colleges” straight out of 1984.
Accreditation should provide students reasonable certainty around things students care about. But it doesn’t. So just as Jeremy Strong alienates his co-stars, accreditation alienates students, who are now voting with their feet. At some point we’ll have had enough of accrediting schools that are the educational equivalent of Kendall Roy. The answer has to be accrediting (and funding) based on success, not Succession.
Looking back on the year, I fear I may have come across as somewhat critical. In addition to accreditation, this year alone I’ve criticized:
I’ve gotten used to being criticized for being critical. My wife calls me the meanest Canadian, which – she admits – is still pretty nice. So here’s the most Canadian thing I can say: sorry. Our system of learning and earning is far from ideal. But with some friendly and humorous nudges, we may arrive at something that works better for more of us.
Thanks for reading and for your continued support. I wish you a restful, wonderful holiday. See you in 2022.