GOP wants accountability, innovation from accreditation – at least right now

The recent midterm elections did not produce a change of party in the House of Representatives, but does this automatically mean that the politics of the House will not change?  Will Republicans want the same things in the 114th Congress that they sought in the 113th?  And, will there be a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and when?

These questions are particularly important when it comes to accreditation and the current Congressional sense of urgency about the quality of higher education.  We know some things about how the House education committee is coming together and the issues, but there is a lot more we do not know.

{mosads}We know that Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) will continue to chair the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and that Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) is likely to remain as chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.  Bobby Scott (D-Va.) will be the new ranking member of the committee.  The overall composition of the committee will change, too. Because of the increase in House seats for Republicans as a result of midterms, their numbers on the committee will increase. The committee has lost long-standing members George Miller (D-Calif.) and Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.).

We know that, before the midterms, House Republicans were clear about some of what is important to them about accreditation and higher education. Their 2014 white paper, Strengthening America’s Higher Education System, spoke to the importance of keeping the federal role in accreditation and higher education limited.The 2014 discussion draft from the House budget committee included a call to “disrupt the accreditation status quo” by making it easier for new accrediting organizations to become federally recognized and encouraging competition and innovation such as course accreditation. Representative Foxx sponsored bills to enhance transparency in higher education and reduce regulatory over-reach. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation to establish a demonstration project for competency-based education that included access to federal aid.

The big message from Republicans in 2014 has been “Yes, we agree with you that accreditation is important. We agree with you about regulatory relief, but you’ve got to do more with accountability, innovation and, above all, student achievement.” Republicans want more accountability in the form of greater transparency and evidence of institutional performance and student learning.  They want to see more innovation such as a larger role for accreditation in review of the quality of competency-based education. They want to see tools developed to efficiently extend quality review to new providers such as private companies offering training, courses and modules. And, if traditional accreditation does not do this, some Republicans are ready to establish new organizations for this purpose.

What do we need to know? We will be looking for signs about whether a House agenda for accreditation modeled on current messages carries into 2015 and whether this fits the newly Republican Senate’s interests and wishes. Senate Republicans have signaled some support for accreditation and are as interested as the House in accountability and innovation. And, the message of the incoming chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) – more limited regulatory oversight but evidence of a more powerful commitment to change in accreditation – serves as a bridge to the House white paper and the discussion draft of the budget. 

We need to know about the timing of reauthorization. A strong case can be made that there is just too much on Congress’ plate to get to higher education and that reauthorization will not occur in 2015.  If we don’t get reauthorization in 2015, so the argument goes, it will not happen in 2016, an election year.  And, even if there is a bill, whether the president would sign it is an unknown.

If the Republicans sustain their interest in less regulation and a more limited federal role into 2015, this is good news for accreditation. However, this can happen only if accreditation responds even more effectively to the challenges of renewed and intensified calls for accountability and even more demanding expectations about innovation.

 Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Tags Bobby Scott Lamar Alexander Matt Salmon Tim Bishop Virginia Foxx

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