Asleep at the Seal

Originally published by The Washington Monthly

Also from ES | February 25, 2010
Related Issue(s): Accreditation, Higher Education

Southeastern University had the saddest bookstore you'll ever see.

It was more of a walk-in closet, really, a tiny space off the lobby of the university's one and only building. When I walked through the bookstore doorway last May, the shelves were half bare, haphazardly stocked with Kleenex and sundries, introductory business textbooks, and, inexplicably, two brand-new copies of William T. Vollmann's sprawling 2005 novel, Europe Central.

I left without buying anything and wandered down a nearby hallway, which was filled with the kind of notices and advertisements ("Roommate needed-no smokers or pets!") found on college walls everywhere. But on closer inspection, some of the notices seemed strange. "Listing of Classes Without an Instructor," one said, followed by a lengthy roster of courses like "Principles of Accounting" and "Health Services Information Systems." Oddly, it didn't suggest that the classes had been canceled due to the lack of someone to teach them. It was more, "Hey, FYI."

After further wandering, I was drawn back to the closet-cum-bookstore. There was a small stack of T-shirts in one corner, along with hats, bags, and paperweights, all bearing the university's official seal. "Chartered by the Congress of the United States," the seal proclaimed, in circumnavigational text, along with a bid for age-based gravitas: "1879." I bought a paperweight—$1.99, on sale—and dropped it into my bag before walking across the lobby to a kiosk under a sign that said "Admissions."

"I'm interested in university course offerings," I said to the woman behind the counter. "Do you have a catalog?"

"I'm not allowed to give out that information," she replied.

"But the sign says 'Admissions.'"

"I know. But we're not allowed to give it out. Everything's on hold right now. Because of the, you know, the situation."

There was an aura of gloom in the squat, deteriorating building on the fenced-in corner lot that comprised the beginning and the end of the Southeastern campus in Washington, D.C. And for good reason: the university was about to be shut down. Two months earlier, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools had decided to revoke the school's accreditation. Because only accredited schools can accept federal financial aid, upon which the large majority of Southeastern students depended, the decision amounted to a death sentence for the beleaguered college.

But the fact that this had happened was less surprising than the fact that it hadn't happened sooner. Southeastern had lived for many years on the most distant margins of higher education, mired in obscurity, mediocrity, cronyism, and intermittent corruption. Students routinely dropped out and defaulted on their student loans while the small, nonselective school lurched from one financial crisis to another. Yet during all that time Southeastern enjoyed the goldest of gold approval seals: "regional" accreditation, the very same mark of quality granted to Ivy League universities including Princeton, Columbia, Penn, and Cornell, along with world-famous research institutions like Georgetown University, which sits in wealth and splendor above the Potomac River just a few miles away.

The decades-long saga of Southeastern's perpetual dysfunction and ultimate demise exposes a gaping hole in America's system of consumer protection for higher education. The government exercises remarkably little oversight over the colleges and universities into which hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are poured every year, relying instead on a tissue-thin layer of regulation at the hands of accreditors that are funded and operated by the colleges themselves. The result is chronic failure at hundreds of colleges nationwide, obscure and nonselective institutions where low-income and minority students are more likely to end up with backbreaking student-loan debt than a college degree. The accreditation system is most egregiously failing the students who most need a watchdog looking out for their interests. The case of Southeastern shows how.

Read more from this article in the March/April 2010 issue of The Washington Monthly.


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