Bill McMillan writes for the Martin Center about an alternative to the traditional college degree.

As higher education undergoes dramatic changes thanks to the coronavirus, reformers should aim higher than expanding online education.

Now is a propitious time to end the dominance of accreditation agencies in higher ed and create a GED-like equivalency exam for a college degree.

Many students want a traditional college life: living on campus for four years, attending classes, and socializing. But for the majority of students, what matters most is learning and getting a credential for a good job or ready for graduate education. These students genuinely desire knowledge but don’t always need other aspects of the traditional college experience. What they need is the paper to prove they’ve done the hard work without the debt that two-thirds of graduates currently take on.

For students who do not complete high school, there is the General Educational Development (GED) exam. Passing the GED (or a similar certificate of high school equivalency) equates to earning a high school diploma. We need something similar for a bachelor’s degree.

The first step to creating a bachelor’s equivalency is to co-opt—or make irrelevant—the national Council for Higher Education Accreditation and regional accrediting agencies such as the Higher Learning Commission.

Those agencies judge whether a college, to which parents pay a king’s ransom to educate their children, is legitimate. Though accreditors will approve the occasional online program, it must be connected to or owned by traditional colleges, which charge correspondingly high tuition. Why? Because the people who judge the legitimacy of educational programs are themselves from other academic institutions. The justification is that only academic experts should judge academic institutions, but the effect is to keep non-traditional competitors outside the moat. The accreditors are insiders guarding the gates to higher education. They are part of a trust or a cartel.

A deep problem with a cartel is its control of a market that keeps competition out. It’s time to make formal accreditation one stamp of legitimacy for education—not the only one.