Administration

2 Proposals for Accreditation, 2 Shared Goals: Limits and Flexibility

March 24, 2015

Should the role of accreditors be limited? Two separate debates on the future of accreditation took shape Monday, and each raised the possibility.

Another common thread ran through both discussions: the need for more flexibility and transparency in a process that is required for colleges to receive federal student-aid dollars.

In a conference call, members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity discussed their latest set of proposals to overhaul the accreditation process and the way the committee assesses the accreditors.

"There is a need for a more differentiated process that allows for different levels of accreditation, for more transparency and openness in the accreditation and the recognition process, and a greater emphasis on student achievement and student outcomes," says the draft document from the advisory committee, which makes recommendations to the education secretary on whether accrediting agencies should be approved. When the draft is complete, the advisory group will forward it to Congress to be considered during the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Shortly after the committee finished its phone conference, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions released a somewhat similar set of proposals in a white paper written by committee staff members.

The paper was one of three by the Senate committee staff, each meant to elicit feedback from people in higher education before the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, said Sen. Lamar Alexander in a news release. The Tennessee Republican is the committee's chairman.

Although the language in each document varies, several of the suggested actions are the same, including breaking down the geographic boundaries of the six regional accrediting agencies, allowing an expedited review for institutions that meet certain standards, and stripping away the long list of accreditation requirements that do not directly relate to educational quality but that are mandated by federal law and regulation.

"Freeing accreditation's responsibilities from the federal government's burdensome, misguided, and duplicative regulations may restore the true focus and capacity of accreditation back to quality and quality improvement of institutions," said the white paper from the Senate committee.

Both papers also call for more gradations in accreditation status and the establishment of new, nontraditional accreditation agencies.

Such changes, if approved in legislation, would provide for competition among accreditors and create a more-streamlined and less-expensive approach to quality assurance, according to the Senate committee's report.

But the Senate committee's paper takes a big step further than the advisory committee: It raises the possibility that accreditors would no longer act as "gatekeepers" for federal student aid. That idea is strongly opposed by many accrediting agencies.

"Accreditation's gatekeeping role has given accreditor's authority and leverage to be overly prescriptive, intrusive, and sometimes usurp institutional autonomy," says the Senate committee's report.

That's far from a new idea. In fact, two members of the advisory committee made a similar appeal in 2012 as an alternative to earlier recommendations from the group on reforming the accreditation system.

That recommendation was rejected by a majority, but "delinking" accreditation from federal student aid is gaining currency, says Arthur J. Rothkopf, one of the advisory committee members who supported that measure.

"On balance, I still like the delinking idea," Mr. Rothkopf said. "A couple other people" on the advisory committee, he added, "would probably support it now too."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs.You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.