One proposal in President Obama’s budget, which is scheduled for release on Monday, has nothing to do with higher education, but it might make a dent in the rising cost of college tuition. According to the New York Times, the fiscal plan will include $15 million for states to study the costs and benefits of their licensing rules for occupations that range from emergency medical technicians to cosmetologists to interior designers.
As states have tried to fill gaps in their budgets in recent decades, they have turned to collecting increased fees by requiring that more professionals get a license. A study by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found that 30 percent of American workers need a license to perform their jobs; in the early 1950s, less than 5 percent did. About 800 occupations are licensed by at least one state. Because licensing requirements discourage people from pursuing some careers, it’s estimated there are 2.8 million fewer jobs nationwide as a result.
And the problem is getting worse, according to the study. In 2012-2013, seven occupations were added to the licensing requirements in at least one state.
Here’s the higher education angle to this story: Many states require applicants to take courses or get a credential just to sit for a licensure exam. Often you can take the exam only if you attended an accredited program, a requirement put into place in many states after lobbying by professional associations. These are the same groups that make money by accrediting specific academic programs at colleges.
Now this so-called specialized accreditation is different than the one required by the government for colleges to get access to federal financial aid programs. That’s regional accreditation, which deals with the academic quality and financial sustainability of an entire institution and gives it a stamp of approval every decade. Without regional accreditation, a college will cease to exist because its students are not eligible to receive federal grants and loans.
The specialized accreditors look at specific subjects, from teacher education to landscape architecture to business schools. This type of accreditation is particularly problematic because it’s not required and doesn’t help students find high-quality programs, yet it adds to the cost of college.
As the number of majors has increased, so have the specialized accreditors looking after them. There are more than 60 different specialized accreditors now in higher education. Some colleges have actually made it a goal to apply for approval by as many of them as they can, even though the entrance fees for each one can run around $25,000. And that fee doesn’t include the cost of the changes often required by the accreditors, from the number of full-time faculty with doctorates to the condition of the facilities where the programs are housed.
“They blackmail us,” John V. Lombardi, the president of the University of Florida, told the New York Times in 1998. “If they say your department of astrophysics needs 12 spaceships and you have only 10, you had better get the other two.”
Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, calculated that the cost of getting his business school accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business would end up being more than $2 million annually. He decided it wasn’t worth it.
But many colleges and universities do. They think accreditation bolsters their reputation. Accreditors protect higher education, not prospective students. While specialized accreditors might say they operate in the interest of the consumer, as membership organizations they are run by the very same people they are supposed to police. Few of them explain to the public why they took actions against a college or rejected an application.
Sure, some professions need state licensure, where our life and safety depends on it. But many simply protect industries, line state coffers, and contribute to the rising cost of college.
Selingo is a regular contributor to Grade Point. He is a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an author of books about higher education and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.