December 16, 2003

Accreditation Fraud

The institution's three-year radiology-technology program costs about $33,000 to complete, and is still not accredited by the proper organization, the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology. Nine students have graduated from the program, and 75 are currently enrolled. Without accreditation, students cannot take the national licensing exam and earn the proper credentials for employment.

Nevertheless, a Spencerian College brochure obtained by The Chronicle clearly states that students would be eligible to take the exam.

-- Elizabeth F. Farrell, "5 Graduates Sue Spencerian College, Saying It Lied About Accreditation Status," Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2003 (subscription-only)

The Chronicle reports that 5 graduates have filed "separate lawsuits in state and federal courts" against Spencerian College, "claiming that college employees lied" about the accreditation status of the college's radiology program. A.R. Sullivan, president of the Sullivan University system to which Spencerian College belongs,

called the brochure statement a regrettable error. Students have 'every right to be aggrieved,' he said, 'but not to sue us for $750,000,' the amount he says each student has requested.

A.R. Sullivan is of course wrong: the students do have every right to sue. Perhaps he meant the students don't have the moral right? There again, I'd have to disagree. But in any case, the students can, and apparently will, stand on their legal right to sue.

And of course it's hard to believe that the brochure statement was simply an "error." Oops! We forgot to check on our accreditation status before offering a 3-year program in area that requires candidates to have completed the program at an officially accredited institution. Accreditation status is a vital piece of information; for a vocational, career-specific course of study, it means the difference between a certificate worth pursuing and a certificate not worth the paper it's printed on. This almost certainly has to be seen as a deliberate piece of fraud. And even if it wasn't deliberate (which is hard to believe), the school should still be held liable for misrepresenting the status of its program.

I hope the students win their suits (chances are, they will reach a settlement before the cases ever get to trial). But it strikes me that lawsuits aren't a very effective means of regulating the brave new world on for-profit education.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 16, 2003 09:54 AM

Might there be emerging legal precedents that will enable a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all the humanities graduates who were lured into graduate school in the 1990s under the pretext of future demand (and who spent 6-8 years, opportunity costs, and untold real dollars) only to find themselves exploited as permanent adjuncts?

I'm sure lots of people suspect that the Bowen and Sosa report was designed by cynical coporate-style academic administrators, but is there an incriminating smoking gun? "Let's flood the market with doctorates, covert the entire workforce to desperate adjuncts, and then we will have absolute control of the universities. Mwah ha ha!"

What about all the rhetoric of "apprenticeship" evident in the marketing graduate programs? Are they not selling jobs? Are many graduate schools not engaged in false advertising?

Can you sue the bastards?

Posted by: THB at December 16, 2003 10:08 AM

There was some stuff in the grad brochures from UW, back in the day, that I think was misleading at the *very* least.

I, however, would like to step up to the accrediting bodies themselves, not to mention the NRC's department-rating garbage. They're doing far more "advertising" in their way than the departments themselves. I'd sue them SOBs in a heartbeat, you bet, for rating the hellpit from which I barely escaped with my life in the top five in its field umpteen years running.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at December 16, 2003 10:47 AM

If the facts are indeed as represented, then I believe the students will and should win this lawsuit. Even if the misrepresentation was not a deliberate fraud, it still caused damage to the students.

But it is not only for-profit schools that are defrauding students. Recently, a blogger reported that a professor had told him that *the steam engine was invented to enable colonial expansion and the transportation of prisoners to Australia.* Another reported that a professor *refused to acknowledge any Christian aspect in Milton's poetry*, because she was herself anti-religion.

To accept money in exchange for providing education, and then to expose students to "teaching" such as the above, is clearly a kind of fraud. The damages may be harder to prove since these courses are not directly career-oriented.

Posted by: David Foster at December 16, 2003 10:57 AM

I'm not sure whether THB is being ironic above, but on the chance that he is not, hey, sign me up for that class action law suit. Hell, I'll even do research for free if it will help.

Sadly, though, I doubt there's enough of a smoking gun anywhere to actually sustain any sort of legal action very far.

Ah, but a guy can dream, can't he ...?

Posted by: Chris at December 16, 2003 11:04 AM

" But it strikes me that lawsuits aren't a very effective means of regulating the brave new world on for-profit education."
Why not? Its a lot better than to depend on another's honesty and honor.

There is one thing that strikes me as odd in THB's first post, about some plot to flood the market with doctorates. Irony and jokes aside, why only the humanities? I mean as professors go, humanities professors and departments are pretty cheap compared to other disciplines. If anything, they should hire less engineering professors and/or smaller departments since they cost more and hire more humanities profs.Anyone have any idea why?

Posted by: Passing_through at December 16, 2003 02:22 PM

Passing_through, my perception is that the funding agencies strongly prefere to give awards to tenure-track faculty. The modern university is being told to bring in more grant moneys, and there's at least the perception of much more external support for research in science & engineering, so those the administration accepts that those departments have to hire some tenure-track faculty.

But, although I sometimes think this website is full of humanities types, the problem certainly isn't limited to the humanities, it just has a slightly different shape elsewhere. Ask a biologist sometime about what the past 20 years have done to their career prospects. Now it isn't enough to have a PhD; you spend at least a couple of years as a postdoc in somebody else's lab, doing the grunt work on their funded research, and there's no guarantee of a tenure-track job afterwards. My field is certainly hiring more non-tenure-track "research faculty" today than it did a decade ago, and about half my friends who want to go to research universities are having to postdoc somewhere first.

I don't see much teaching being done by adjuncts in the sciences. Perhaps because there's more of an obvious job market outside teaching for our PhDs (either industry or academic research staff)?

Posted by: ABD Instructor at December 16, 2003 06:00 PM

Well, Passing_through, part of the issue in science is diplomacy. Any given administration (which usually includes faculty) can only screw around with science faculty salaries so much, or else when the administration is composed of science faculty they will return the favor with a vengeance.

Another issue is that a university is getting a great deal with professors with lots of grants. Many researchers get a lot of their income from grants. Many universities keep part of the grant money brought in by professors; the University of Texas system schools keep up to half of a grant given to a professor. Further, you can't pull off a lot of BS because grants will dry up quickly (see below). Add to that the income that comes from intellectual property generated by faculty, and pretty soon it appears that the most profitable thing to do is to recruit excellent researchers (note that this has nothing to do with teaching ability). Since you're competing with industry as well as with academia, you must pay relatively higher salaries (a condensed matter physicist at my current school told us that one of his students just entered industry at six figures). This even extends to grad students: good professors network their students well, which benefits the student, the professor, and eventually the university, both in good will and financially since it never hurts to have a tie to a funding agency, a corportaion giving grants, government labs, or other schools.

Another issue is simple prestige. There are a crapload more Nobels given for techinical and scientific work each year than for non-techinical achievements, the government gives out much more grant money for technological and scientific research than for other work (for example, the Internet exists because DARPA paid for its predecessor, Arpanet), Intel pays for computing research, not literary research, and so on. The better your research, the more grants you get, the more prestige you have, and the more you can get from a university (the most highly paid person at Rice is a Nobel laureate). The university likes this because it can then claim to have Nobel laureates and other well-funded people in its faculty.

Simply put, it so strongly benefits universities to treat technical profs relatively well, and to maintain the proper accrediations, that universities generally do so. That they did not indicates that the people at Spencerian College are either amazingly naive or just an unbelievably stupid bunch of con men.

At my alma mater a $50 million grant to the the College of Engineering was almost cancelled because the president, a linguist (i.e., from the College of Liberal Arts), wanted to chop it up and give huge chunks to Liberal Arts and Education. The granting company told her that either Engineering got all of it or the school got none of it; Engineering being one of the school's crown jewels, she backed down.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 17, 2003 03:54 AM

Well Aramis Martinez, I disagree.

" or else when the administration is composed of science faculty they will return the favor with a vengeance."
Same holds for other faculty of other disciplines. Not much difference here.

"Another issue is that a university is getting a great deal with professors with lots of grants."
Yes and no. Universities do get part of the grant money. However, the startup costs for these professors are almost always bore by the universities. A startup package for say a lab could run into half a million, which the university has no idea if that guy will actually make something out of it. True the university gets more money, but it also has to spend a whole lot more money. I am not sure the universities actually break even.

"Another issue is simple prestige. There are a crapload more Nobels given for techinical and scientific work each year ..."
Not true again. There are only 5 nobels given each year. Physics, chem, literature, peace, medicine. Economics is given by the bank of sweden. Not techanically a nobel but usually considered so. So ok 6 if we stretch it a little. The nobel is proberbly the only prize that the general public will recognise. The wolf, clark, turning are mostly unknown. (math,eco,and computer science respectively) So as far as prestigue goes, only the nobel matters to the average man. This still still leaves majority of universities without a nobel on staff.

This still doesnt explain why unversities do not hire less engineering professors and/or smaller departments since they cost more and hire more humanities profs. Universities generate most of their funds from tuition and federal/state money while departments generate most of their funds from grants. Thus from a university standpoint, there isnt much difference if there are 10 more engineers or 10 more english majors. They still pretty much get the same amount of funds. Following this, is it not logical that since the humanities are cheaper on a per student basis that they should be expanding humanities departments instead of technical ones?

On a side note : I wonder if its common practice to "chop up" grants to other departments let alone other schools.

Posted by: Passing_through at December 17, 2003 10:56 AM

>" or else when the administration is composed of >science faculty they will return the favor with >a vengeance."
>Same holds for other faculty of other >disciplines. Not much difference here.
FWIW, I agree with you. It just *seems* to me that if what I read on this blog is true, then science and engineering people are more vociferous about opposing bad treatment.

>A startup package for say a lab could run into half a million. . .
This is a pretty good investment if you are going to get a lot more than half a million out of it from a professor's work and grants, which can easily happen if the person is around for a career (the people getting serious grants are often tenured or tenure-track, so they are around several years). Richard Smalley at Rice earns about half a million a year, funds lots of grad students, and still the school is making gobs of money in the deal (and the figures published were his salary, not the income from his company). The money from these guys can subsidize a couple of others, and as for whether or not the university has assurance the potential professor will make it, that is no longer true. Scientists now are made to take 2-5 years as a postdoc before going tenure-track (you can imagine how ticked off I was to learn that my future is not 5-6 years at graduate wages but 8-10). The question for sci-tech tenure is political ability, not research ability.

As for why there are more engineering/science than liberal arts, there is just a heck of a lot of difference what you get for your money. This seems to be because of three reasons.

1) Only private universities make gobs of money through tuition. State schools in all 50 states are clamoring for higher tuition because it is not large enough a part of their revenue to offset the hit from state cutbacks. To continue to offer the same services, let alone add new ones, you need other sources of revenue (and you can only raise tuition so much before pricing lots of students out of the market). Think grants here, and remember that the federal government pours absurdly larger amounts in to sci-tech-medicine than into anything else (and even there it's not even since bio & chem get about twice what physics gets). Each year the National Institutes, NSF, DOD, and DOE spend hundreds of billions, while the NEA gets a fraction of that.

2) A university can look at what return it has gotten on its investments in various departments (besides grants, there are facility construction and maintenance, support by alumni, and a host of other possibilities that all boil down to the bottom line in some way). Lots of computer labs in comp sci and engineering departments get donated by tech companies; last time I checked, Steinway wasn't giving many pianos to music departments. Lots of universities are naming buildings for the technical companies that donated the money to build them, which again is rare for liberal arts. Its worthwhile to know people at the NEA, but having friends at the NSF will generally be more profitable. Rice will never make as much money off of its liberal arts departments as it will off commercialization of its nanoshell and nanotube research, and this sort of situation exists at pretty much all schools.

3) Money-wise, students in science and engineering represent a better value than students in liberal arts, They are often cheaper since it is common for students to be payed for by an advisor's grants, and increasingly they are encouraged to apply for their own grants and fellowships, while to my knowledge the same level of resources is not available to humanities students. Added to that is the fact that in a couple of years into grad school a university will be getting a researcher at significantly below the market price for a PhD with the same skills, yet another cost reduction.

Thus, from a solely financial point of view, it would be stupid to pick liberal arts over science/engineering. It is possible you might pay less up front, but you will make such a smaller amount of money overall that you may endanger the school's competitiveness, you will lower the return on investment by a ridiculous amount, and you may endanger your own job as a university administrator. I haven't even gotten to the difference in the way that society views engineering or medicine versus the way it views, say literature or comp/rhet (you can enjoy Tolstoy, but his work won't cure your cancer or Google your Web).

Now, before anyone starts protesting or flaming, I'm not saying that this is the way it should be. In fact, I've posted before saying that I believe each of these endeavors has limitless value to society and should be supported accordingly. I'm saying that sometimes administrators have to make tough decisions on behalf of a school, so it's not really hard to see that so many of them will pick what that they think will bring the most support. Such is life in an era where the people of this country have decided to underfund education yet demand it of everyone, and life in a country where the benefits of certain fields are so much more visible that people forget there are other joys in life.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 18, 2003 07:03 AM

A quick last thought. I have no idea what sort of support is available to undergrads in the liberal arts, but I know that there is significant support at that level for science and engineering, especially doing grunt work and as junior researchers. Is there anything comparable to programs like the countless research internships (NSF REU and the like)? I would hope so, but for some reason I suspect that funding patterns aren't any different for the undergrad level of education -- excepting of course lots of home-cooked meals and laundry ;-)

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 18, 2003 07:07 AM

Well Aramis Martinez,
what you say might hold true for only a handfull of schools, but not for a majority of others. Once you think outside the top research schools, the remainder of universities dont have a ghost of a chance of getting the big grants. Outside the handfull of top tire private research universities and perhaps the flagship state universities at each state, the remainder wont have the sources of funding you mentioned anyway. Many of these places dont even teach sci/engin. beyond the undergraduate level. So they effectively depend on state/federal funding and tuition to run their shop. Why then do they care if they have a chem dept, a mech engin. dept at all? These departments costs more money to run (for example, think labs + insurance, nobody gets hurt writing), thefore it follows that these places should have more humanities faculties/departments than sci/engin. ones. Thus from a purely financial point of view, these places should offer more humanities rather than sci/engin.

I have used humanities instead of liberal arts that you used in your posts because the differences in funinding between the two. Social sciences like psychology, economics, sociology are all housed in the liberal arts, but these departments do have good funding opportunities. (Psychology of alcohol dependence, drug use, etc. seems stuff NSF and NIH will be interested in. Economics have more in common with business programs, more than one would imagine.)

Posted by: Passing_through at December 18, 2003 11:15 AM

Facinating historical footnote. In the 19th century, young people who wanted to obtain good indoor jobs in business often attended calligraphic "colleges," where they would learn fancy writing, shorthands and business procedures.

The colleges taught many different styles of writing. One was Spencerian. "Of or relating to an ornate style of writing employing rounded letters slanted to the right. [After Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864), American handwriting expert.]" The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

Without more information, I would guess that Spencerian College was the organizational remnant of one of those schools. Most of them went under after the commercializtion of office machinery in the first third of the 20th century.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 19, 2003 02:31 AM

Passing_through, this has been a most interesting discussion. I rarely get called upon to use my writing skills so much in a few days, and I thank you for the opportunity. FYI, I did my undergrad at Texas-El Paso, which until the UT system acquired its Pan Am and Brownsville campuses was frequently refered to as the bastard stepchild of the UT system. My part of the discussion is based on two extremes of experience, UTEP and Rice, but these are not fundamentally different as far as I can tell. On a side note, as to whether smaller state schools can get serious grants, as of last year the only UT school to get more external funding than UTEP is UT itself. I do not know everything about the wiles of academic funding and grants, just what I've seen at these schools and learned from others, including you; I would be interested to know of the background for your perspective.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 19, 2003 03:09 AM

Well, UT Dallas was pretty much built by grant money from technical engineering companies (such as TI).

What is interesting is that it is building some other departments the same way -- and is finally adding undergraduate students in any real numbers.

It was started by grants from companies interested in having graduate degreed employees (and employees who wanted to finish up graduate work) in Dallas.

Posted by: Steve at December 20, 2003 11:44 AM