Center for American Progress Report Proposes Accreditation Reform

Posted By Derek Johnson on October 31, 2016 at 9:58 am
Center for American Progress Report Proposes Accreditation Reform

For years, the writing has been on the wall regarding the need for higher education accreditation reform. For starters, accreditors view their responsibilities differently from politicians and the general public. Most accreditation agencies see themselves as peer-review organizations whose primarily role is ensuring schools comply with federal regulations and encouraging self-improvement when they see problems.

The public and officials who represent them, meanwhile, have increasingly come to view accreditation as a seal of approval for college quality and accreditors as guardians of federal student aid. This view has become especially pronounced as the rising cost of tuition has made student loans an absolute necessity for most Americans to attend college. Furthermore, the expectation is that accreditors will step in and deny access to federal student aid dollars for schools, particularly for-profit colleges, judged to charge outrageous tuition for degrees that are nearly worthless in the job marketplace.

While the accreditation industry has notoriously resisted taking on this role, the Department of Education has turned up the heat in recent years, going after the Title IV eligibility of poor-performing schools and revoking the accreditation authority of agencies that consistently approve them. Even long-tenured officials are starting to recognize that, to survive and maintain their status as higher education gatekeepers, accreditation reform is necessary and must include education quality, graduation rates and student outcomes as a bigger part of the evaluation process.

An outcomes-based alternative for accreditation reform

The Center for American Progress is a left-leaning think tank with deep ties to the Democratic Party and Bill and Hillary Clinton. A month before the presidential election, the center has released a report offering an alternative system of accreditation that would complement rather than replace the current regional and national agencies responsible for the status quo.

Under the proposal for accreditation reform, the new system would not rely on self-regulation by nonprofit membership-based organizations. Rather, it would use standards set by “independent third-parties” and student outcome data defined and collected by the federal government to bestow accreditation and access to federal student aid to any higher education program that can demonstrate high performance results. The authors believe this new approach will help remove the conflict of interest associated with traditional accrediting bodies, which rely on funding from the same colleges and universities they evaluate:

“Accreditors are self-regulating membership organizations. This means that agencies’ revenue comes almost entirely from dues and fees paid by the institutions they oversee… This financial arrangement creates potential conflicts of interest, where an accreditor is both a membership organization beholden to the institutions that pay it for its continued existence but also tasked with overseeing these schools and evaluating their quality. Terminating a member institution’s approval thus results in lost revenue for the accreditation agency.”

An alternative system free of those conflicts would have more freedom to reward experimentation and new higher education models that are cheaper and offer better support to the growing population of nontraditional students, such as older and low-income Americans with families or jobs and military veterans. Unlike traditional accreditors whose student outcome standards “range from minimal to nonexistent,” this new system would judge a program’s Title IV eligibility by its record producing high numbers of graduates who attain good-paying jobs in their chosen field of study.

“Evaluating educational providers solely based upon the outcomes they produce is the key element of this alternative gatekeeping system,” the authors write.

The accreditation reform proposal identifies four areas of student outcomes: graduation rates, job placement rates, post-graduation earnings and the proportion of graduates able to pay back their student loan bills. The authors take care to note that these outcome standards can and should vary depending on the type of program or discipline:

“For example, measures for a program that leads to graduate education may not need as much of an emphasis on job placement rates and could focus instead on longer-term earnings. By contrast, an educational provider that only offers short-term medical training would face high standards for job placement and loan repayment rates.”

Other alternatives for accreditation reform

The Center for American Progress is not the only one to take a crack at reforming accreditation. A bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-CO, and Marco Rubio, R-FL, would open up the process to non-college higher education providers in the private sector and switch to an outcomes-based evaluation system where metrics such as graduation rates, job placement and return on investment play a much larger role in determining whether an institution can accept federal financial aid.

“To modernize our higher education system, we must end the status quo accreditation cartel that stifles competition, encourages soaring tuition costs and limits opportunities for non-traditional students, such as working parents,” Rubio said in a release announcing the bill. “This alternative accreditation system we’ve proposed is built on higher quality standards and outcomes than the current accreditation system and would mark an important first step to shake up a higher education system that leaves too many people with tons of student loan debt and without degrees that lead to good paying jobs.”

Like Rubio, Sen. Mike Lee, R-UT, has likened accreditation to a “cartel,” whereby the federal government and accrediting agencies (staffed primarily by officials from traditional two-year and four-year colleges and universities) conspire to withhold approval and shut out any competition from educational providers that don’t look and act like traditional colleges and universities. Last year he wrote a bill that would create parallel state-based organizations with the authority to bestow accreditation on any institution that meets state standards for educational quality.

In a National Review piece outlining his proposal, Lee said the status quo has not only allowed bad actors in the for-profit and non-profit college sector to essentially defraud their students and pocket millions in federal funding, but has also contributed to the rising student debt totals.  “This closed, subsidized market has helped spur runaway inflation, which has made it impossible for all but the wealthiest students to pay their own way,” Lee wrote. “So Washington’s offer to most high school graduates is: go tens of thousands of dollars into (non-dischargeable) debt to pursue an overpriced degree, or spend the rest of your life locked out of the middle class.”

Whether any of these ideas become reality is largely dependent on the outcome of the 2016 elections and which party controls the presidency and Senate. Sen. Lamar Alexander, current chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, heads up reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, but if the Senate flips to Democratic control, that responsibility would most likely fall to Washington Sen. Patty Murray. While Alexander has expressed support for opening up accreditation to new players, he has historically been opposed to using or even collecting student outcome data at the federal level.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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