Recent publications and the ongoing fallout from the shut-down of national accreditor ACICS have refueled ongoing discussions about the role of federal regulation, accreditation, and state oversight of higher education. This month, the Urban Institute released 11 memos to support legislative policy to expand subsidized higher education, promote the collection and dissemination of information, create eligibility standards for students and institutions, and expand research on the sector to ensure quality and attainment.
Fueling much of the conversation is the perceived value of the federal investment in higher education. In 2015-2016, the federal government spent nearly $160 Billion in federal financial aid to students. According to the authors of one Urban Institute report, “This level of funding is rooted in a long-standing, broad-based consensus that the number of Americans with postsecondary credentials-and the skills and knowledge associated with those credentials-must grow if the United States is to maintain a strong labor force, compete in the world economy, and provide opportunities for its citizens to lead productive, rewarding lives.” (Baum Harris, Kelly, & Mitchell, 2017, p. 2).
The last ten years have seen increased efforts to improve transparency and accountability: gainful employment, institutional data-reporting requirements, and the now-abandoned federal college scorecard and rating system. Yet at the same time, a consistent questioning of the value of higher education-and the federal programs that support them-has continued in multiple media outlets.
The Urban Institute reports suggest that in addition to clearer and more transparent data leading to better decisionmaking on the part of student to ensure that the student receives the full value of the educational experience, they suggest that “More complete and reliable data would allow federal and state governments to develop stronger and simpler quality assurance systems, support research that increases understanding of the factors fostering and hindering student success, and help institutions devise better strategies for improving the opportunities they offer students” (Baum Harris, Kelly, & Mitchell, 2017, p. 8).
The authors suggest that existing systems and larger market forces don’t offer adequate consumer protection, and that additional regulations are required to ensure federal dollars are well spent.
Critics suggest that the existing structures limit innovation, or prevent new entrants into the market that could offer lower-cost programming; however, this criticism doesn’t come with a solution that ensures quality, the hallmark of accreditors' role in the educational system.
But under the Obama administration, the federal government’s overseer of accreditors, the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) began to take a more aggressive role in monitoring accreditors themselves, focusing more upon institutional quality than mere compliance with established benchmarks or standards (Kelchen, 2017, p. 3). Kelchen suggests that “The overarching concern with accreditation is that accreditation agencies cannot do a sufficient job of assuring educational quality, thus letting substandard institutions receive access to federal financial aid” (2017, p. 6).
In his report, Kelchen offers five critiques and solutions to the problem of existing accrediting practices. The first is to limit what he calls “backscratching,” or the number of commissioners and visitors who oversee the accreditation of an institution coming from employment within institutions of that same region. The second is to deregionalize accreditation to break up what he calls a “cartel,” essentially allowing institutions to shop accrediting agencies that align with their mission, values, or strategy. The third is to foster greater innovation for non-institutional providers by allowing them to access federal funds or to rework accreditation to be a program-by-program certification rather than an institutional blessing. The fourth is to remove accreditors’ responsibilities around monitoring the financial health of an institution (allowing accreditors to focus on academic quality) and creating federal benchmarks and/or independent audit standards. And finally, the fifth critique and solution calls for a streamlining of the accreditation process to make it more affordable and less burdensome, particularly for institutions with a history of success.
Against this new interest in accreditation reform is a history of quality assurance that has generally provided for the expansion of higher educational access, improved quality measurements, greater transparency, and the creation of exceptional return-on-investment for both society and individuals (Ewell, 2010; Powell, 2013; Ma, Pender, & Welch, 2016).
Transparency efforts by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) (releasing commission action letters and site team reports); specialized, focused, and simplified accreditation cycles for established institutions at The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC); and ongoing efforts among and between the regional accreditors to align terminology, standards, and outcomes all point to point changes that address the central question from both critics and supporters: how do accreditors and the federal government work together to assure educational quality and institutional sustainability?
While the answer to this question inevitably involves continued assessment of what works and what doesn’t, the fact that American Higher Education remains the standard for educational quality around the world should give pause to anyone suggesting overarching structural change. The diversity of institutions, missions, and constituents that community colleges, public four-year, private four-year, graduate, faith-based, tribal, and Hispanic serving institutions serve require a more thoughtful approach than simply deregulating higher education and reducing measures of academic quality to a nation-wide metric that doesn’t take into account the circumstances that this enormous marketplace has created.
Higher education reform must continue to assure quality outcomes, transparency in reporting, and institutional stability that provides for continuity of student experiences, but much of that work is already underway, supported and monitored by NACIQI – as well as the marketplace of students every day making decisions about the true value of higher education.
Baum, S., Harris, D.N., Kelly, A., & Mitchell, T. (2017). A Principled Federal Role in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.
Ewell, P. (2010). “Twenty Years of Quality Assurance in Higher Education: What’s Happened and What’s Different?” Quality in Higher Education 16 (2): 173–75.
Kelchen, R. 2017. Higher Education Accreditation and the Federal Government. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.
Ma, J., Pender, M. & Welch, M. (2016). Education Pays 2016: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society. New York: College Board.
Powell, C. (2013). Accreditation, assessment, and compliance: Addressing the cyclical challenges of public confidence in American Education. Journal of Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness, 3/1, 54-74.