Speculation and starting points: accreditation, a new administration and a new Congress
© Greg Nash

With the election just over, speculation about winners and losers has been replaced by speculation about what the winners will do with governing the country. When it comes to accreditation, we don’t know much, but we do have some starting points. 

These starting points, as of this writing, can’t be campaign rhetoric or appointments by the incoming administration. The Republican Platform barely mentioned accreditation; the president- and vice president-elect did not address accreditation. Neither the Platform nor the candidates had much to say about higher education itself. Even as nominations for key education posts are being announced, we will be able to say little about the implications for accreditation.

However, the other winners in the election, the Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Senate give us a lot to say. They are the starting point for us, taking us beyond speculation. We can look to the Senate and House leadership in higher education for a foundation as a new administration and new Congress get to work in January. And, the foundation enjoys at least some bipartisan support. These starting points for Republicans are both consistent with at least some of the Transparency Agenda put out by the Obama administration in November 2015 as currently being implemented by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) as well as attracting some Democrat concurrence in the Congress. 

First, we should not expect any massive rollback of regulation when it comes to accreditation. Nor should we expect the recent powerful federal presence in accreditation to entirely recede. Second, we can expect that lawmakers will continue the recent practice of judging the effectiveness of accreditation based, first and foremost, on the performance of accredited institutions and programs: graduation, completion, jobs and earnings, even if it is without the intense pace and passion about regulation that has characterized the last ten years.

The most extensive attention to accreditation in the Senate has come from Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderObamaCare becomes political weapon for Democrats Senate passes resolution requiring mandatory sexual harassment training Sen. Warren sold out the DNC MORE (R-Tenn.), chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The senator, while committed to reducing some regulation, is also calling for more rigor in accreditation, with more attention to student learning outcomes and greater transparency. He has talked about rethinking the regional structure of the primarily nonprofit institutional accreditation sector to increase competition in the accreditation space. He is also discussing expansion of student aid. Finally, the senator has discussed increasing the accountability of institutions in relation to student debt or default, or “skin in the game,” while also calling for a “light touch” or differentiated accreditation review. Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayA bipartisan bridge opens between the House and Senate Overnight Health Care: ObamaCare sign-ups surge in early days Collins, Manchin to serve as No Labels co-chairs MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member of the HELP Committee, is also seeking more attention to student learning outcomes in accreditation and higher education.

In the House, Rep. Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxOvernight Regulation: House passes bill to overturn joint-employer rule | Trump officials to allow work requirements for Medicaid | Lawmakers 'alarmed' by EPA's science board changes House passes bill to overturn controversial joint-employer ruling Bipartisan group of lawmakers aim to reform US sugar program MORE (R-N.C.), chair of the House Higher Education and Workforce Training Subcommittee and likely incoming chair of the full education committee in the next Congress, has consistently called for more attention to student learning outcomes, the market and transparency from accreditation. Her House Resolution 3178 to create a “College Dashboard” is intended to assist to students to make better decisions about college attendance. She has talked about greater oversight by the Government Accountability Office and use of the Inspector General. At the same time, Rep. Foxx has, for a number of years, sought to shield higher education and accreditation from federal oversight in a number of areas, challenging regulations that affect credit hour definition, gainful employment, teacher preparation, state authorization and calling for a scale-back of USDE.

Another theme of the starting points for accreditation is the call for establishing new accreditors focused on outcomes and innovation. In the Senate, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Cornyn: Senate GOP tax plan to be released Thursday This week: GOP seeks to advance tax overhaul MORE (R-Fla.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetBipartisan lawmakers can rebuild trust by passing infusion therapy bill GAO to investigate Trump's voter fraud commission 2 election integrity commission members protest lack of transparency MORE (D-Colo.) want traditional accreditation to be augmented by alternative “innovative authorizers” to encourage new providers and innovation in higher education. These providers could be eligible for student grant or loans through Title IV of the Higher Education Act (S. 2111). Sen. Michael Lee (R-Utah) wants states to develop their own systems of accreditation, again, in addition to traditional organizations and focused on innovation (S. 649).

So, the starting point is a federal government that will continue to occupy the accreditation space. There will be no retreat from the line crossed years ago with the Bush and Obama administrations that initiated this federal presence. Regulation may be slowed or take a different form, but it will not stop or go away. Whether through the Congress or USDE, we can expect that federal officials to sustain their recent expanded oversight role of accreditation and how it operates, either through new legislation such as reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, increased scrutiny of accrediting organizations in the periodic federal review process (“recognition”) or use of recent federal tools such as the enhanced College Scorecard or Accreditation Dashboards of the past year or yet other means that Congress and the new administration may devise.

Judith Eaton is President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which represents 3,000 accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities and recognizes approximately 60 institutional and programmatic accrediting organizations.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.