US Higher Education Accreditation and Its Critics

More than 7,000 institutions of higher education exist in the United States today. The sector is richly diverse, with everything from large public research institutions to small religious colleges to for-profit institutions located fully on the web, and much in between. Recognizing this diversity, government has historically taken a flexible approach to the regulation of higher education. Although states have sometimes been more prescriptive of the methods and processes by which institutions (particularly public higher education institutions) must operate, in general, higher education institutions have been given the flexibility to set their own goals and determine the methods by which they will achieve them.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), the law that created the current federal system of higher education finance, does not prescribe how institutions should teach, research, or provide service to the community. However, Title IV of the HEA states that an institution must be “accredited” for its students to be eligible for Pell Grants and student loans under federal programs. Accreditation is a non-governmental system under which regional or national private entities work with individual higher education institutions to review and critique their operations. The higher education institution provides a “self-assessment” that the accreditor then uses as a framework for examining the institution’s successes and challenges.

Accreditation has been around for more than a century. Before World War II, accreditation was a fully non-governmental initiative that provided a process for institutions to assess themselves, and it also served as a basis upon which institutions would allow students to transfer from one to another. Since the 1950s, accreditation has taken on a second, somewhat conflicting, responsibility of assuring the government of institutional quality control. Non-governmental accreditors help the federal government by certifying that institutions are worthy of participation in higher education financial programs.Under the current accreditation system, seven regional and seven national accreditors work with institutions to assess their programs. Numerous “program accreditors” also certify academic programs in specific disciplines and professions. For example, the American Bar Association accredits schools of law.

With some meaningful exceptions in the areas of finance and safety, where accrediting entities must follow federally prescribed inspection procedures, the regulation of higher education is flexible. Institutions set their own goals and measures that indicate progress toward them.

The initial accreditation process for a new institution is especially detailed—some would argue overly burdensome—and can take between five and ten years to complete. After initial accreditation, for most institutions, re-accreditation happens every ten years usually with a mid-term check on their operations, providing an opportunity for them to update their goals and methods and to work with a third party to evaluate themselves. With some meaningful exceptions in the areas of finance and safety, where accrediting entities must follow federally prescribed inspection procedures, the regulation of higher education is flexible. Institutions set their own goals and measures that indicate progress toward them. Academic priorities are established internally, and institutions themselves assess whether they are successfully pursuing them. Supporters argue that the flexibility of the accreditation system allows it to be responsive to the diversity of higher education: the numerous different academic programs at different kinds of institutions that serve different kinds of students. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to regulation, they argue, would be destined to fail.

Many have argued that the coupling of accreditation’s gatekeeping function with its quality assurance function obscures the efficacy of the latter, leaving few intermediary or graduated options that could support and incentivize poor performing actors’ improvement without removing them from the system altogether.

Despite this flexibility, if an accreditor finds that the organization has not met the basic requirements of financial stability and academic rigor, the institution is no longer eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs (this happens rarely). For almost every institution, removal of an accreditation would be a death knell, so they work hard to ensure this does not happen. Many have argued that the coupling of accreditation’s gatekeeping function with its quality assurance function obscures the efficacy of the latter, leaving few intermediary or graduated options that could support and incentivize poor performing actors’ improvement without removing them from the system altogether.

Because of the Title IV requirement that an institution be accredited in order for its students to receive federal financial aid, the federal government plays a large role in the higher education regulatory system. But states also play a meaningful role. Every institution must receive approval by their home state to operate, and an institution cannot receive funding without this approval. Many states have significant requirements (such as proof of financial ability and a sound curricular program) that institutions must meet to be approved, and most provide meaningful financial oversight of approved institutions. However, few states require that approved institutions meet academic benchmarks, and most have not have taken action against low-quality institutions.

This system has brought increasing complaints over the years. First, critics argue that the accreditation system has few teeth. Institutions only need to share their plans with the third-party accreditor, and are not required to submit it to the government regulator. They are also not required to implement their plans, and there are no penalties if, for example, at reaccreditation the institution has not implemented the plans it established a decade before.

Accreditation decisions are enforced on a binary scale (reaccredited or not reaccredited), and almost every institution is reaccredited, whether they are doing well or poorly. This lack of differentiation makes it difficult for students (and regulators) to determine which institutions provide a quality education and which ones should be avoided.

Additionally, accreditation decisions are enforced on a binary scale (reaccredited or not reaccredited), and almost every institution is reaccredited, whether they are doing well or poorly. This lack of differentiation makes it difficult for students (and regulators) to determine which institutions provide a quality education and which ones should be avoided. Critics also argue that, since an institution meeting minimum requirements gets the same access to funds as a high-performing one, this approach does not give incentives for institutions to improve.

To enhance the strength of the regulatory system, Congress amended the HEA in 1992 to require the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to approve accreditors. The ED must certify that each accrediting agency has the capacity to assess higher education institutions. The amended HEA also gave more direction to accreditors, requiring them to certify that institutions meet “minimum standards” in ten areas, including student achievement and compliance with Title IV.

Since the adoption of these requirements, Education Department oversight of accreditors has increased—but many still argue that the system has had little substantive impact and that the regulations have pushed accreditors to become “box checkers,” certifying that institutions meet minimum standards in their operations. While infrequent, this process is burdensome and costly, requiring the institution to dedicate thousands of person-hours and hundreds of pages to respond to self-study prompts and document requests. Yet critics contend that the process still does little to help institutions improve processes or student academic outcomes.

Over the past decade, policy makers have increasingly questioned the value of accreditation in the federal financial aid system. A 2006 report by a commission appointed by then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings argued that accreditors needed to push institutions to focus more on student academic outcomes and that the system should be more transparent and accountable to public concerns. While she was the Education Secretary, Spellings tried to change department regulations to require accreditors to measure student learning and other outcomes, but higher education institutions convinced Congress to prohibit the department from adding these requirements. More recently, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan called accrediting agencies “the watchdogs that don’t bark.”

Critics also argue that accreditation serves as a barrier to entry for innovative new educational approaches. For example, federal regulations require that student aid be allocated based on the number of “academic credits” being taken by the student. Many argue that this approach, which calculates the total number of credits received using the number of hours the student is expected to spend in class, does not measure actual student learning. New approaches, such as “competency-based” education, do not fit well into existing Title IV requirements focused on Carnegie units because they measure student progress based on achievement of learning outcomes rather than seat time. With some exceptions in experimental initiatives, competency-based approaches have struggled to achieve accreditation, and have not been able to compete for students desirous of financial support. New providers like coding boot camps, MOOCs, and MOOCs specializations, and other short-term skills-based credentialing programs also do not meet traditional accreditation requirements, and, in most cases, are ineligible for federal financial aid.

Federal regulations impose barriers to innovation, but critics also argue that accreditors themselves, which rely on volunteers from established institutions, also serve as obstacles to new approaches…

Federal regulations impose barriers to innovation, but critics also argue that accreditors themselves, which rely on volunteers from established institutions, also serve as obstacles to new approaches, and might be more open to innovation if experts from industry or other educational organizations were included in review. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has called the system a “cartel.”

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