Diversity, not uniformity

In my previous post, “Quality peers, not quality police,” I observed that accreditation by means of peer review has produced the most diverse, envied, and emulated higher education landscape in the world. This is no private assessment. It is universally acknowledged to be true. Despite recent student visa strictures, international students continue to validate our higher education system by enrolling in huge numbers.

It stands to reason, then, when it comes to public policy, proposition #11:

Government policy should promote variety/diversity, not conformity, among postsecondary education providers. 

As I pointed out previously in this series, government policy has lately been driven by a single-minded notion regarding the purpose of higher education. Consider this excerpt from the Barna Group’s new monograph, What’s Next for Biblical Higher Education? which offers summary analysis and findings of a major ABHE-sponsored enrollment messaging and marketing study:

Through the past 3,000 years of Western history, ideas about what exactly education is for have come and gone and come again. In keeping with the hyper-materialist consumerism of our age, education is—for now, at least—seen almost exclusively as means to the end of a job. Not the proverb-writer’s “knowledge of God.” Not Socrates’ “improvement of the soul.” Not Aquinas’ pursuit of a “vision of the Divine Essence.” Not even Jefferson’s hope for a citizenry possessed of reliable “good sense.”

Today, the purpose of education is to “meet the state’s work- force needs.”

A preference that impoverishes

Should the notion that higher education’s primary, if not exclusive, purpose is to “meet the state’s workforce needs” be privileged in public policy? I offer an emphatic no. Not only does such a bias belie an understanding of history, it impoverishes our civilization.

We are better off when postsecondary institutions espousing a variety of notions about the purpose of education and serving a broad spectrum of student needs and aspirations are encouraged to thrive. Different need not be regarded as inferior.

A preference that suppresses innovation

When education is required to serve a single vision, policy will prescribe conformity. And conformity will likely prove an enemy of innovation.

Consider the government’s regressive policy on credit hour definition in terms of “seat time.” When you seek efficient administration of student aid dollars, that definition serves. But when you seek to respect the diversity of missions and to encourage innovation, such a policy is almost certain to be counterproductive. What may be good for efficiency often begs the question of effectiveness.

Credibility and consumer protection—legitimate interests of peer accreditation and government policy—must not be sought primarily in terms of conformity. We can do better. We must do better.

A better way

A more hopeful policy example is the effort to create regulatory and financial aid eligibility space for competency based education (CBE). CBE seeks to change the entire basis upon which college credit and completion are calculated. Traditional higher education designates time as a constant and, consequently, achievement becomes the variable. CBE flips the calculation on its head: achievement becomes the constant and time the variable.

Will CBE displace traditional higher education? I don’t know. I’m confident, however, that our society would be well served if CBE’s proponents and pioneers are accorded policy space for responsible innovation. What they learn will contribute vitality to guardians of the status quo as much as to its critics.

The narrower path is wider (and wiser)

The optimal policy pathway is one that effectively (if not infallibly) sorts out abusers without stifling innovation. Let’s find that path and stick to it.


Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …

One final word from a sage theological educator

Daniel O. Aleshire, a great ABHE ally and esteemed friend, has concluded his distinguished career as Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools. His final ATS blog post on the nature and limitations of accreditation in theological education is worthy of a careful and reflective reading.


Truth and lament

Belfast Bible College instructor, Heidi Johnston, helps us see an important distinction hinging on the word “like” in the second verse of Lamentations. It’s a distinction of which I need reminding again and again.