Health Care

Lessons for Higher Education from the CDC and FDA Virus-Testing Fiasco

Scientists work in a lab testing coronavirus samples at New York City’s health department during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, April 23, 2020. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
We should consider introducing escape hatches from the accreditation system.

One of the reasons the coronavirus pandemic got out of hand in this country is the testing fiasco orchestrated by the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. There’s a lesson here for those of us in higher education. When innovation is needed — and needed quickly — we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket.

In early January, Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus, which allowed laboratories to start designing tests. By late January, around 20 organizations in the U.S. were developing tests. The CDC was able to design a test for the virus quickly, which the FDA approved on February 4. Thus, in a remarkable display of government competence and bureaucratic flexibility, two federal agencies were able to create a test for a never-before-seen virus and approve it for nationwide distribution in less than a month.

But they had also sown the seeds for a testing fiasco. While the declaration of a public-health emergency gave the FDA the ability to speed up testing approvals, it placed stringent burdens on non-CDC organizations. Those organizations that had been working on designing tests in January spent February trying to navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth, with one exasperated scientist being told that his emailed submission was not acceptable because the FDA needed a hard copy by mail as well. The FDA did not approve another test until February 29.

The FDA’s foot dragging meant that for most of February, the CDC test was the only game in town. But the CDC test turned out to be broken — needing another three weeks to find a workaround. Thus, between February 4 and February 26, during which the virus was spreading exponentially, the country effectively lacked large-scale testing capability. And we lacked this capability because the FDA insisted on putting all the nation’s testing eggs in one basket: the CDC test, which the CDC botched.

Higher education should avoid repeating this mistake. The key lesson from the FDA and CDC testing fiasco is that we shouldn’t rely solely on existing institutions to get it right in the face of a new and rapidly evolving crisis. But unless changes are made, higher education will likely repeat the mistakes of the CDC and FDA, with colleges playing the role of the CDC and accreditors playing the role of the FDA.

It is possible that higher education can return to the status quo if the crisis is short-lived. But if we need to discover and implement a new normal, we shouldn’t rely solely on existing colleges. While on paper they are a natural choice since they already have many of the necessary components (a large pool of skilled teaching faculty, existing registration and grading systems, financial-aid offices, etc.), history suggests that many will be slow to react. Part of this is simply inertia by the previously successful (e.g., Blockbuster vs. Netflix). Another part is the difficulty any organization has when trying to change their business model, with unique handicaps in higher education because so many stakeholders have veto power over any change.

So while colleges should be encouraged to help discover and implement a new normal for higher education, we must open up higher education to new providers that may be more innovative and flexible. But just as the FDA hindered virus testing, accreditation can hinder educational alternatives because educational institutions need accreditor approval to participate in the federal financial-aid programs. Entrepreneurs can start a new college, but their students can’t use Pell grants or student loans to pay for it without an accreditor’s approval.

In a new study, The Case for Escape Hatches from Higher Education Accreditation, we document some of the issues with accreditation, including the failure to assure quality and contributing to higher college costs. But during the current virus crisis, the most important problem is the recipe approach of accreditation, where accreditors insist on a set of inputs and processes that colleges must use.

Accreditation’s recipe approach presents a huge barrier to innovation. But we should not get rid of accreditation either because without accreditors, there is little to protect against fly-by-night schools that do not educate their students. We would also likely witness a dramatic increase in federal and state government interference in higher education as they seek to fill the accountability void if accreditors are removed.

A partial solution to this dilemma is to introduce escape hatches from the accreditation system.

While accreditation focuses on inputs, and is largely agnostic regarding outcomes, escape hatches would reverse this, focusing on outcomes while being agnostic about inputs. Under the escape hatch plan, Congress and the Department of Education would set benchmarks for learning and/or labor market outcomes, and any students attending an educational institution that met these benchmarks would have access to federal financial-aid programs without their program needing to be accredited as well.

For fields with outside certification exams, benchmarks for learning outcomes could be introduced. Consider accounting, a field in which many graduates take the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam. An accounting program could be given access to the federal financial aid programs if a set percentage of its graduates pass the CPA exam, or if the value-added contribution to their students’ CPA passage rate exceeds a set level. Similarly, labor-market outcomes could focus on reducing unemployment or increasing the earnings of students by set amounts.

This escape-hatch plan is a good idea even in normal times. But it is crucial during this pandemic because if the crisis is severe, prolonged, or recurring, we very well may need to move to a new normal in higher education. But just as the CDC and FDA’s testing fiasco hobbled the country’s response to the virus, the accreditation system may hobble the search for and discovery of a new normal in higher education. Escape hatches from accreditation can help mitigate this danger.

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