Accreditation and higher education

As Congress moves to renew the Higher Education Act, there is much discussion as to whether the current structure of accreditation needs to be tweaked, overhauled, or scrapped. Those favoring the latter, wish to replace the existing system of six regional bodies with either a single, national structure or an agency within the U.S. Department of Education.  Even those who favor continuing the voluntary regional model argue that it is time for change.

In an effort to objectively look at this complex topic, it is necessary to answer the following questions:

 WHAT IS "ACCREDITATION?"

Accreditation is a form of quality assurance.  By adhering to specified standards, accredited institutions are willing to be held accountable for the quality of their instruction and services.

 WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF AN “ACCREDITED” INSTITUTION?

An accredited higher education institution gains access to nearly $150 billion in annual grants and loans for students. These funds are administered by the Department of Education, which uses eligibility criteria to force compliance with often onerous regulations.  These monies are separate from military tuition assistance, GI Bill entitlement and other workforce training/education programs.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE CURRENT SYSTEM?

A popular perception is that the existing processes for becoming accredited are too rigorous and time consuming, slowing the introduction of new initiatives that promise to reduce costs or speed time to credential.  Others maintain that the regional accrediting bodies are too lax, often stating that the proper role for such bodies is to act as an enforcer of institutions who fail to adhere to published standards and federal regulations.

Other critiques include:

 §  Institutional accreditation is a closed system. 

§  The process of becoming accredited is unnecessarily rigorous and time consuming.

§  Existing accreditors are more interested in preserving the status quo than facilitating change.

§  Compliance assurance is hit or miss and too infrequent to be meaningful.

§  The process is untrustworthy due to insufficient transparency in the process used and its findings.

§  Accreditors are too slow and too timid in holding institutions accountable for not complying.

§  Adopted standards pay too little attention to learning outcomes.
 

WHAT IS RIGHT WITH THE CURRENT SYSTEM?

While conceding the need for several changes in current practices and policies, supporters of the existing process highlight that America maintains a higher education infrastructure that is the envy of the world.

Critics are nearly equally divided on accreditation, which suggests some regions are striking the appropriate balance of strict enforcement of regulation and policy vs. collegial sharing of best practices to improve quality. The regional approach to accreditation avoids "one size MUST fit all" and the unintended consequences that have been a bi-product of federally mandated regulation.  Each region is theoretically free to establish standards that are thought to benefit different types of institutions and constituents.

The efficiency of the current system is strong as it ensures a significant level of quality among nearly 5000 institutions, many of which are quite different from each other.
 
Many believe the regional accrediting bodies are more open to innovation and new initiatives than either state or federal agencies.  While the Senior Commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) approved the first entirely online degree program in 1986, the Department of Education did not allow Title IV aid to be distributed to online students until 2006.  The Veterans Administration admits to continued doubt alongside some states, where the 50% Rule remains on the books.

There is truth in both sets of perceptions. 

Change is needed, but it is understood this is a complex enterprise.  The future strength of our economic competitiveness can be impacted by Congress.  Change should be considered and vetted with those directly impacted, and the motives of those insisting upon change need to be considered.

The current system is neither broken nor perfect.  What is certain is that we do not want a centralized federal system that is subject to the political and ideological agendas of those in power at any given time.

Ebersole is president of Excelsior College, an online college with degree programs in Business, Technology, Nursing, Liberal Arts, Health Science and Public Service.

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