Why higher education is in need of regulatory relief
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Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCheese, wine importers reeling from Trump trade fight Peace Corps' sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback Lawmakers raise concerns over Russia's growing influence in Venezuela MORE (R-Fla.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand Bennet2020 race goes national in sprint to Super Tuesday Toward 'Super Tuesday' — momentum, money and delegates Trump seeks split-screen moments in early primary states MORE (D-Colo.) reintroduce a bill to create new types of accrediting organizations. 

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduces a bill to expand actors in the accreditation space, giving states opportunities to establish such organizations. 

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden leads Sanders by single digits in South Carolina: poll 2020 Democratic candidates support Las Vegas casino workers on debate day Sanders takes lead in new Hill/HarrisX poll MORE (D-Mass.) and Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTimeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Trump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske MORE (R-Utah) introduce bipartisan legislation (Senate Bill 1121, the College Transparency Act of 2017) to promote transparency to assure quality. A companion bill from Reps. Paul Mitchell (R-Mich.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) (H.R. 2434) quickly follows.


We are awaiting reintroduction of Sens. Warren/Durbin/Schatz’s Accreditation Reform and Advanced Accountability Act of the last session of Congress that would fundamentally restructure accreditation as we know it. House Democrats start a campaign, Aim Higher, to promote college access, affordability and completion.


Why this spate of bills and initiatives in Congress that address quality and accreditation during just the past few weeks? 

Because quality and value in higher education command the attention of the federal government. And, because accreditation has been, for a century now, the primary means of assuring this quality and value in colleges and universities.

Eighty-five different organizations examine thousands of institutions and programs every year.

What do all these bills have in common?

They continue the march to more and more regulation of accreditation and higher education that began with the George W. Bush administration and accelerated throughout the Obama Administration. Whether the Trump administration will join the march is still an unknown.

When it comes to accreditation and regulation, we have reached a point where the level of government oversight has resulted in a complex web of law and regulation that threatens to stifle the very effectiveness of accreditation on which government has relied.

It is time for regulatory relief for accreditation.

How much regulation is enough?

How much is too much?

The federal government maintains an ongoing scrutiny of accrediting organizations, an extensive process known as “recognition,” because accredited status is a requirement for institutions and programs to obtain and maintain eligibility for federal funds.

At present, approximately $170 billion in student grants and loans, research and program funds go to institutions and programs annually. The scrutiny includes 10 pages of law, 27 pages of regulation and 88 pages of sub-regulation.

All this means that there are more than 200 separate requirements that accrediting organizations must meet to emerge successfully from the recognition review that they undergo at least every five years.

The federal presence has become disproportionate and distorts the accreditation enterprise. It affects colleges and universities as well, paradoxically limiting the innovation and creativity that Members of Congress say they are seeking from higher education.

Accreditors and institutions are forced to operate in a culture that, however unintentionally, discourages flexibility and experimentation.

What might regulatory relief look like?

There are many areas in which government is unnecessarily engaged in the decision-making of accreditors and relief would be appropriate. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation’s Position Paper on Regulatory Relief for Accreditation identifies ten of these, from government oversight whenever a college or university wants to make a major change such as a new campus or program to government telling accreditors what information must be public to government deciding what counts as college credit.

Relief can include Congress opposing even more legislation that would further expand already excessive regulation.

Relief includes a halt to the undesirable standardizing of accreditation that is emerging, however unintentionally, from all this regulation. 

Why do we expect that the 85 different accrediting organizations have the same standards and expectations when this is unworkable in a higher education environment that prizes diversity of institutions and programs to promote access?

Instead, accreditation needs to be free to support and strengthen judgment of quality based on institutional mission, strengthening the valuable diversity of higher education.

Finally, regulatory relief does not preclude accountability.

Accreditors would still be held accountable for providing clear, reliable and readily accessible information to the public about the performance of institutions and programs, for meeting high expectations of rigor in quality review and for preserving as well as encouraging diversity and creativity in the service of students.

The details of regulatory relief are complex, but the commitment is straightforward. 

Regulatory relief can only strengthen the contribution that accreditation makes to students and society.

It can enhance not only the effectiveness of accreditation, but also its accountability.

Judith Eaton is President of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an association that represents 3,000 accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities and recognizes approximately 60 accrediting organizations.

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