The ‘Private-Practice’ Professor, A Path To True Education Reform

What if the qualifications that secure college and university accreditation instead secured accreditation for individual scholars?

Colleges and universities are accredited on the backs of their faculty, on their degrees and academic achievements. But what if the qualifications that secure college and university accreditation instead secured accreditation for individual scholars, allowing them to offer accredited courses as private-practice professors, thereby opening the door to a host of free market innovations? With some imagination, this simple but radical innovation could mark a path for true education reform.

Several years back, I decided it was time for my teenage daughter to study philosophy. Being a philosophy professor, I was able to offer the necessary instruction. I determined that she would take my standard Introduction to Philosophy class one night a week. I was confident in her intellectual abilities, so there was no need for a new curriculum; I’d use the syllabus, assignments, and lectures I had developed for college freshmen.

Word quickly spread through our community. Several homeschooling parents reached out to me, asking if their high school son or daughter might join the class — adding quickly that they’d pay me. I had no objection to others joining us, but I warned that their child would not receive college credit; I’m just teaching the class in my living room.

This warning, however, raised a question for me: Why not? I had just taught the exact same class one mile down the road at the local university. Had my daughter taken the class there, she would’ve received college credit. Why could she, or any other student, not receive college credit for the exact same class taught in my living room?

I realize the answer is that the university is an accredited entity, and I’m not. But this, too, struck me as strange. Thinking back on when my prior university was up for accreditation renewal, the accreditors reviewed my credentials. It was my degrees, my publications — and those of my colleagues — that secured their accreditation. Yet, upon leaving, the university kept the accreditation; I did not.

My fateful homeschool class also cast light on some surprising economics. Having never handled the fees for my own classes, I had no idea what to charge. Five hundred dollars seemed like a lot, but I knew it was a far cry from what parents would typically pay for a college course — nearly $2,500 on average. So they gladly accepted the price tag.

I began to run numbers. Were I to teach this class as an adjunct at a college, I would receive only $3,000 — a pretty standard rate. With only six students, I could match this fee. Yet, I’ve rarely taught an intro class with fewer than 20 students. Such a crop in this independent context would earn me $10,000, all while offering the students a heavy discount. Naturally, my wheels got turning about how easy it would be to exceed my roughly $50K annual salary with equal or less teaching than my typical eight-course annual teaching load.

But the challenge, again, was that my credentials secured accreditation for the university, not me. So arose in my mind a proposal for education reform. What if accreditation followed the scholar, not the university? What if, just as we have licensed counselors and attorneys and physicians, we had private-practice professors — accredited scholars in various disciplines?

On this proposal, scholars could offer accredited courses in their discipline to anyone they wish. Such a shift would create a college alternative. The proposal would not eliminate the distinction between credentialed experts and novices. It would only remove from universities the sole power to bestow credentials and hand that power to the experts in the field. One need not attend a university to study a discipline; he could, instead, study under the experts of his choosing in order to achieve mastery and attain credentials.

Not only does the proposal have a commonsense ring to it, but it opens rather interesting free market possibilities to address the rising cost of higher education and pave the way for innovation.

Consider a few possibilities.

Competitive Pricing

Some scholars will inevitably be more sought after than others, and such experts could charge exorbitant fees for classes. The market would thereby provide upward financial possibilities for scholars that presently do not exist. Scholars who turn into public intellectuals often find avenues for financial gain, but the typical scholar who grinds away at building a body of research rarely does. Neither journal articles nor scholarly books pay, and universities rarely diverge from standard pay-by-rank models. Yet a reputable scholar whose work is known and insights coveted could set prices reflective of demand.

By contrast, the young, hungry, newly credentialed scholar could offer low prices to build his client base and reputation. Prospective students could decide for themselves what the class is worth. If cost is most important, they can take the untried scholar. If the established scholar is more important, they can pay the premium.

Income-Based Discounts

Such a model makes it easy for the government to incentivize tuition breaks. If tax breaks were offered to scholars for discounts to students from a certain income bracket, for example, such breaks would incentivize scholars to take on, at discounted rates, students from low-income families.


We have already seen how COVID forced the world to rethink in-person instruction. The private-practice professor may invite similar innovations. Such scholars could determine whether they wish to teach over Zoom, travel from home to home, invite students into a common space, or teach onsite at historical locations. The proposal also opens the door to virtual schools. By “virtual,” I do not mean digital but cooperative cohorts of scholars. Independent scholars could very easily create a network that becomes a virtual university, one where students of one scholar know they will find like-minded scholars in other disciplines through his network.

Ancillary Industry

Such innovation likely opens the doors to other business ventures. Just as office space rental has become viable post-COVID, for example, the rental of teaching space could become rather popular. I can also imagine a new insurance need. Just as medical professionals need malpractice insurance, independent scholars would not have the usual legal cover supplied by universities and may want some kind of liability coverage.

Worth noting is the current glut of PhDs unable to find teaching jobs. Higher education has, for years now, been granting graduate degrees to students at a rate disproportional to job openings. I remember applying for a position in 2014 and learning I was one of 400-plus candidates! I got the job, but a great many young scholars are unable to find a university at which to teach. This is a problem only because their credentials do not allow them to teach independently in any recognized way. This proposal opens the door for innovation among these hungry scholars eager to make a name for themselves and earn a living.

Undoing the norm is difficult, of course. Several obvious challenges come to mind. I expect accrediting entities would face heavy pressure from universities to resist this proposal. Hence, this innovation in higher education is likely to face an uphill battle.

There’s also the challenge of degree granting. It’s one thing to accumulate a series of accredited classes, but who will determine that someone merits a degree? And who will grant that degree?

I anticipate worries about oversight. Who holds these independent scholars accountable? How do we make sure they don’t simply sell credits without teaching or requiring work from students?

Such questions are fair but not insurmountable. Perhaps independent scholars might band together to form their own accrediting body.

As for degrees, perhaps cohorts of scholars or their accrediting bodies might become degree granting entities. Or maybe universities could serve as umbrella schools (for a fee), offering degrees to those who fulfill requirements from scholars approved by their accreditor.

As for oversight, perhaps accrediting bodies can serve this function. Just as one can complain to the American Bar Association about legal malpractice, so one could do the same with accreditors for private-practice professors.

Again, the proposal is not without its challenges. Yet, with some imagination, solutions can be crafted. We already have precedents in medicine, law, and counseling. Moreover, we’re in a time when the cost-benefit value of higher education faces serious skepticism, and yet typical proposals for education reform rarely move the needle. A proposal of this kind may offer the sort of revolutionary yet commonsensical shift that can bring about a true change in higher education as the free market does its work.

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Nathan A. Jacobs, Ph.D. is Scholar in Residence of Philosophy and Religion at Vanderbilt Divinity School and is a writer/director/producer with the Wonder Project. You can follow his substack at

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