College Accreditation at a Crossroads: Do More Voluntarily or Be Forced To Do Less

Posted By Derek Johnson on January 12, 2016 at 12:13 pm
College Accreditation at a Crossroads: Do More Voluntarily or Be Forced To Do Less
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. J. Scott Applewhite, AP Images.

The current higher education market suffers from an array of systemic problems: predatory for-profit schools, inflated tuition, stagnant college graduation rates, and exploding student debt. With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act looming in 2016, many critics and reformers believe that changes to the way we evaluate and qualify schools to accept federal student aid may hold the key to improving some or all of these ills.

Though peer-review organizations have existed in the higher education field for hundreds of years, the roots of the modern accreditation system go back to the GI Bill passed in 1944. After providing millions of returning soldiers with tuition and living expenses for college, Congress needed oversight of the program and to ensure the funds were not going to waste. That task was eventually given to college accreditation agencies, who have acted as arbiters and gatekeepers of federal student aid ever since.

Seventy years later, accreditation agencies are straining under the weight of these responsibilities, with critics contending that they lack the independence to weed out bad actors and institutions that have plagued the higher education system. The rise of the for-profit college industry, in particular, has perplexed accreditors, who seem unable to rein in the worst excesses.

The most notable example this past year – the Corinthian Colleges scandal – was marked by the revelation that, even as the schools were under active investigation by the Department of Education for deceptive marketing practices, their application for accreditation was renewed by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. The federal government eventually wound up picking up the tab, canceling the debt of thousands of Corinthian students who had been defrauded.

Regulate more, lower the cost of college and ensure value

As the student debt crisis has worsened, politicians have begun questioning what role accreditors have to play in lowering the cost of college.

“I want to make college more affordable and reduce the crushing burden of student debt,” said Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during a hearing earlier this year on improving the accreditation process.

In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama proposed that policymakers hit schools where it hurts by withholding federal student aid eligibility to high-cost, low-return degrees. “So tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid,” said Obama.

But there are serious questions about the role accreditation agencies have to play in that mission. Though some lawmakers may feel that these organizations have a responsibility to set standards and encourage affordability, most accreditors don’t agree. Instead, they argue that accreditation must follow the law as written and evaluate a range of higher education institutions with different missions. Imposing a one-size-fits-all standard on things like affordability, return on investment or even minimum quality, they argue, just isn’t feasible.

“[H]igher education is still a long way from effectively evaluating what an acceptable completion rate is within the context of each institution’s mission and student characteristics,” wrote Ralph A. Wolff, former president of the accreditation organization Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College University Commission, in an op-ed for Higher Ed Today last year.

Furthermore, many accreditors feel they are in an impossible situation, taking fire from universities and colleges for overly burdensome regulations and from the federal government and think tanks for not holding these same universities accountable on matters of cost and quality. Wolff argued that a lack of transparency obscures the hard and diligent work done by accrediting agencies. He recommended other agencies follow WASC’s lead and peel back the curtain, making the reports and documentation that go into the evaluation process public.

Any large-scale changes to the way we evaluate higher education will likely come through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was supposed to be renewed in 2013 but has been slowed by a change in Senate leadership and overall congressional gridlock.

Deregulate, separate college accreditation and federal financial aid

While the focus of Democrats like Obama and Murray is on broadening the mission of accreditors, others like Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Committee of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, are looking to narrow it. In public comments over the past year, he has downplayed the problems of cost and affordability, frequently saying that paying for college in America is “easier than most people think” while touting options like Pell Grants and low-cost or free community college. Instead, he has pushed for simplifying and deregulating the financial aid process to open a wider array of higher education institutions to federal funding and encourage more innovation.

To the extent that Alexander has focused on our system of accreditation, he has expressed a desire to streamline and reduce their amount of responsibilities and allow them to use a “lighter touch” on high performing schools in order to focus more time on poor performing ones. He has acknowledged the system needs reform but is at a loss for what might replace it.

“Our accreditation system has to improve because there’s really no decent alternative. Congress can’t monitor 6000 colleges and universities. The Department of Education surely can’t,” said Alexander during a speech to The American Enterprise Institute in July.

Critics like Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, have called for breaking the link between college accreditation agencies and federal student aid eligibility, arguing that these organizations draw most of their membership from the very colleges and universities they are supposed to be evaluating. She has called the current dual-mission of these organizations “schizophrenic” and “a perfect example of regulatory capture.”

“As it currently exists, accreditation is a house divided against itself. The kind of peer review that assesses and enhances quality cannot thrive alongside the gatekeeping function necessary to referee an institution’s eligibility to receive federal funds—a financial life and death issue for most colleges and universities,” said Neal during congressional testimony in 2013.

Neal has proposed going back to the days where accreditors acted purely as peer-review organizations providing best practice advice to colleges – while a third-party independent auditor examines a school’s finances, affordability, quality and other metrics to determine whether they are qualified to accept federal student aid.

In the same piece for Higher Ed Today, Wolff said he believes that college accrediting agencies have proven they can strike the right balance, but that more needs to be done to prove it in the eyes of the public and lawmakers:

“Without more engagement from institutions, more transparency from the regional agencies, and a greater willingness on the part of policymakers and others to look more closely at the pivotal function that accreditation plays, it will never realize its full capacity to help institutions help themselves stay accountable, and higher education may well lose the privilege and responsibility of self-regulation that accreditation provides.”

Image: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. AP Images | J. Scott Applewhite

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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