By Terry W. Hartle
Accreditation has served higher education well for more than a century but significant changes may be just around the corner. What has long been a voluntary, non-governmental peer review process, internally managed by colleges and universities to determine if institutions met threshold measures of academic quality and to facilitate institutional self-improvement, is increasingly under external pressure to adopt cross-sector, prescriptive assessment methods to satisfy demands for “accountability.”
Federal Government and Accreditation to Date
The history of accreditation as a means of ensuring academic quality for federal policy purposes dates to 1952. Initially, there wasn’t much to it—the U.S. Commissioner of Education (later the Secretary) was required to publish a list of accrediting agencies and associations regarded as “reliable authorities” on the quality of training offered by educational institutions.
Serious reliance on accreditors to vouch for postsecondary institutions stems from the surge in student loan defaults (mostly at for-profit schools) that plagued the federal student loan program in the late 1980s. Beginning with the 1992 Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, Congress required accreditors to provide data and information about their policies and procedures to the U.S. Department of Education. Perhaps inevitably, Congress soon began to dictate policies and procedures to be followed.
The federal oversight of accrediting agencies jumped dramatically after the 2008 HE A reauthorization. Numerous new provisions were added with respect to distance education, due process, and operating procedures for accreditors. At the same time, the secretary was explicitly prohibited from establishing any criteria that specifies or prescribes the standards accrediting agencies use to assess any institution’s success with respect to student achievement.
In 2010, the Department of Education went much further than Congress ever envisioned when it promulgated regulations defining “credit hour” and required accreditors to ensure that schools are meeting the federal definition. At the same time, Senate hearings on alleged abuses in the for-profit schools were especially critical of accreditors for failing to protect students and taxpayers against predatory institutional behavior.
The easiest way to understand the cumulative impact of these changes is by imagining accreditation on a continuum with serving institutions on one end and serving the Department of Education on the other. Twenty-five years ago, accreditors would have been very much near the “institutional” end of the continuum. Today, they are increasingly being pulled in the direction of the serving the department. But regardless of exactly where on the continuum we might place accrediting agencies today, it’s the trend that is worrisome.
Congress and Accreditation
Few members of Congress or their staff really understand what accreditation is or how it works. They instinctively know it’s a “good thing” but beyond that, their knowledge is usually fairly superficial. This does not mean they lack opinions about it. Unfortunately, the most common observations about accreditation are often inaccurate and incomplete. The sad fact is that most policymakers think:
1. Accreditation does not protect students from lousy schools. This view holds that accreditors are unable or unwilling to take strong action, even when presented with clear evidence of institutional misconduct. Many policymakers believe that consumer protection is or should be the primary function of accreditation.
2. Accreditation is focused on the wrong thing. For most of the past 70 years, accreditors have examined institutions based on the self-defined mission of the school. However, policymakers and the public increasingly want more evidence of accountability, specifically evidence related to student learning and success.
3. Accreditation is not transparent. Public information about the result of an accreditation review is often opaque. For the most part the public only sees a puff of white smoke or a puff of black smoke and they don’t see black very often. Accreditation looks like a closed, secretive process. Policymakers want more information to be publicly available.
4. Accreditation is riddled with conflicts of interest. Policymakers are usually amazed to learn that schools pay money to an organization that accredits them. To a casual observer, it looks as if accreditation can be bought. This concern is magnified by worries about the lack of transparency.
5. Accreditation reviews are too infrequent. Accreditation is not seen as an on-going process. Some policymakers complain accreditation visits don’t occur often enough to protect consumers, especially in an era when for-profit schools in particular have demonstrated great ability to remake themselves very quickly.
6. Accreditation is not always fair to schools or programs. Despite the view that accreditation has a number of serious weaknesses, many members of Congress believe, perhaps surprisingly, that accreditors can be too hard on or unfair to institutions. The reason is simple: Any school that has an accreditation problem immediately calls its federal officials to complain about the accreditors. Policymakers never hear from a school (or program) that has a good experience but they always hear from a school that has a problem.
The only certainty is that interest in the role and place of accreditation will remain high—there is too much federal money being spent on student aid and too many students whose well-being depends on higher education to imagine any other outcome. Beyond that, however, there are three possible scenarios for how the relationship between the government and accreditors will evolve over the next decade.
Increased government micromanagement. The history of the last 20 years shows steadily increasing federal involvement in accreditation. There are, at present, 28 pages of federal regulation that govern what accreditors do and how they do it. We have no reason to suspect there will be less federal regulation going forward—accreditors will likely continue to be given new federal mandates to address the perceived deficiencies outlined above and they will increasingly resemble a regulatory extension of the Department of Education.
Break the link. Congress could sever the connection between accreditation and eligibility for federal student aid. Accreditors would be free to do what they have historically done (institutional improvement) and the department would develop and impose its own quality control measures to ensure consumer protection and transparency. This would, of course, fundamentally alter the federal government’s role in higher education and require the department to hire a substantial staff to perform whatever oversight they want.
Reaffirm credibility and value of accreditation. A third possibility is that the higher education community addresses the perceived weaknesses in accreditation and does so in ways that increase confidence in the judgments made by accreditors. This would be a fairly difficult task, requiring representatives of the higher education community to define the challenges, balance competing interests, develop appropriate responses, and implement them.
Most federal officials would probably prefer that the higher education community addresses the concerns and permits accreditors to continue to play the validation and approval role that they have played in the past. Whether the higher education community can or will do this is unclear. But there is no doubt that federal policymakers are watching: Accreditation has been the subject of two congressional hearings in the last year and it was a central issue in a third. Key Democrats in the House and Senate believe more explicit federal requirements are necessary to ensure accreditors do what the government wants and needs. At least one senior Democratic senator is developing legislation to “improve” accreditation.
Institutional accreditors are caught in a vise: They find themselves criticized by policymakers and the media for providing insufficient accountability and transparency at the same time that some campuses question the costs and benefits of the accreditation process. These complex and conflicting pressures make it imperative that the higher education community undertake a sustained and systematic review of institutional accreditation as currently structured and practiced and identify ways to address these concerns. The ball is in our court for now. Repeat: For now.
Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president, Division of Government & Public Affairs, American Council on Education.