While the higher education community awaits the eventual reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, observers are speculating about how the process will proceed, what new requirements might be placed on institutions, and how the Department of Education will implement the new law. But it is already clear that the “triad”—the complicated, interconnected relationship between the Department of Education, states, and accreditors that determines institutional eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs—will likely be modified.
The triad is often referred to as a three-legged stool in which the combined actors are stronger than they would otherwise be. Nonetheless, each actor has an important role to fulfill: the federal government assesses and certifies the financial strength of institutions, the states ensure that institutions are chartered and approved to operate, and the accreditors ensure academic quality.
During the early history of the Higher Education Act, the triad existed largely on paper. But that all changed with the 1992 reauthorization. As student loan defaults skyrocketed in the late 1980s, Congress needed to take aggressive steps to ensure the financial and academic soundness of institutions. It turned greater attention to the triad and imposed extensive new requirements on all three actors. The 20 years since have witnessed a series of additional tweaks, most of which have placed more and more responsibility on accreditors, the strongest and most viable arm of the triad.
While the department’s central role in the triad is to ensure institutional eligibility and certification, each part of the triad is inescapably linked to the other parts. Because the department is limited in its ability to require states to take an expanded role, it has increasingly turned to accreditors to fill this vacuum. Unfortunately, left unchecked, this trend threatens to make accreditors a regulatory enforcement arm of the department.
If past is prologue, this reauthorization will result in new requirements for all the actors in the triad on top of those already in place. The likely result? More confusion and complexity for everyone. Before going down this path, Congress would be wise to undertake a top-to-bottom review of the institutional eligibility process—both to better understand how it currently works and to see how it could be improved.
In sorting out these relationships, Congress should bear in mind the following:
FIRST, the department has grown dramatically, and now resembles a garden where some extensive pruning is necessary. It is also important to make certain that the department has the staff and expertise it needs to accomplish its responsibilities and that the expectations for institutions are clear, sensible, and reasonable.
SECOND, the states’ role in the triad, although important, is uneven. It may be impossible to define responsibilities that all states will agree to follow, so those responsibilities may have to be addressed by other actors.
THIRD, accreditors have been forced to take on an oversized role with respect to the triad, and the Department of Education has significantly increased its control over them. Both of these developments merit careful review in the coming reauthorization.
Members of Congress know we are witnessing dramatic changes in almost every aspect of postsecondary education. Some of these changes will not last, while others may be transformational. As higher education continues to evolve, the triad must as well. As Congress charts its course for reauthorization and beyond, it should strongly consider starting with a clean slate, instead of layering on additional requirements that will bring confusion and contradiction.